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Landlords Face Tough Times But One Still Shares Blessings

The phone constantly rings at Salerno Service Station on Lorimer Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Owner Mario Salerno, shown here, also has 18 multifamily buildings. In April, he canceled rent for 200 tenants to ensure they had enough to pay for food at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. (Photos: Bill Miller)

WILLIAMSBURG — By the time you’ve had your morning coffee, Mario Salerno has been to daily Mass, said the rosary, and had a workout before opening his family’s auto-body and repair shop on Lorimer Street.

Salerno’s routine suggests he is disciplined and focused, apt qualities for growing a diverse slate of businesses. He manages the auto service business his late father started in 1959, plus a fleet of rental properties that house about 200 tenants in 18 buildings.

It’s a rough time for landlords, and not just in Salerno’s Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Last month, President Donald Trump put a moratorium on evictions for millions of people across the U.S. until Dec. 31 to help stem widespread homelessness. That may ease the minds of out-of-work tenants who can’t afford rent, but landlords must still pay utilities, taxes, and cover repairs on their rental property.

Salerno made headlines about a month into the pandemic’s assault on New York City when he canceled April rent for all his tenants.

The world took notice, and Salerno was interviewed by news outlets from around the globe, even as far away as Israel and Turkey. He also appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and attended the National Day of Prayer with President Trump on May 7 at the White House.

“We’ve been fortunate to do it,” Salerno said of canceling April’s rent. “I did it out of humanity. When everybody kept bringing up how much money I lost, I told them, don’t worry about it. It’s all right. Look out for your roommates, your neighbors, make sure your pets have enough food.

“Does everybody have masks and food? Do they have soap? If you can pass it down, then you do it. That’s it.”

During a recent visit to his auto service center, Salerno, 60, recalled all the attention he got for canceling a month’s worth of rent.

It’s a clean shop, where the walls of every garage, service bay and office have at least one — and in some cases, countless — crucifixes, portraits of saints, or both. The same goes for the personal gym next to the customers’ waiting area, where, placed atop the control panel of a treadmill, a Bible with well-worn pages is open to Matthew, Chapter 25.

Landlord Mario Salerno has a gym inside his auto service business in Williamsburg. It’s decorated with religious portraits and statues that illustrate his Catholic faith. Here, a Bible — open to Matthew, Chapter 25 — tops the control panel of a treadmill. (Photo: Bill Miller)

Salerno’s smile seems permanently affixed to his face, but the jovial businessman got quite serious while describing the plights of fellow landlords during the pandemic.

“I have friends who sliced the rent they charged,” Salerno said. “They had to do that. But at the same time, we all don’t get to stop paying the water bills to our buildings and the taxes. We never know what’s going to happen.”

New York City rental industry analysts warn of massive financial losses for landlords in 2020. 

Real Estate website StreetEasy, in its Q2 2020 Market Reports, noted that landlords were allowing more discounts to renters to stay in business. 

According to the report, in Brooklyn, “more than 1 in 4 (25.6 percent) rentals were discounted during the second quarter, an increase of 8.6 percentage points year-over-year.”

In Queens, “more than one in five (22.5 percent) rentals were discounted in the borough — an increase of 4.7 percentage points from last year, and the largest share of discounts since the third quarter of 2018,” the market reports stated.

Nancy Wu, an economist at StreetEasy, said commuting to the office and living in the center of the city “were simply not on the list of priorities for renters during this past quarter.”

“Landlords reacted by slashing rents and trying new tactics to attract tenants,” Wu noted. “Remote work has given many renters the option to live anywhere they please, making it too soon to predict when rents will rebound.”

Tenants can get help from local, state, and federal services to avoid evictions, but fewer options exist for landlords.

However, landlords might qualify for federal forbearance programs if their mortgages are from government-backed agencies like the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or the Veterans Administration (VA).

Forbearance only pauses a property owner’s obligation to pay the mortgage, just like the renter who won’t be made homeless for not paying rent during Trump’s moratorium on evictions. In both cases, the rent or mortgage payments are delayed, but not canceled.

Meanwhile, landlords and the organizations that represent them have joined the chorus of out-of-work citizens clamoring for unemployment assistance payments from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. Those funds expired on July 31 and Congress is still in negotiations over whether to resume them.

Salerno does not volunteer how much he lost by canceling rents for April. He noted, however, that he charges about $500 less than the rental market rates where his buildings are located.

“So, if it’s $2,000, I charge $1,500,” he said. But, multiply that by 200 tenants and it’s clear Salerno gave up a sizable chunk.

Mario Salerno proudly displays the part of Lorimer Street renamed for his family, “Via Salerno.” Salerno’s late father started the auto service business that has been a Williamsburg fixture for more than 60 years. (Photo: Bill Miller)

While introducing Salerno to the audience during the May 7 prayer event at the White House, President Trump recounted how the landlord wanted to ensure his tenants had enough food before he got paid “even though he’s losing a lot of income — which he could always use. We can always use it. Right, Mario?”

“Mario said that’s irrelevant compared to the value of human life. Fantastic thing, Mario.” the president remarked.

During Salerno’s appearance on Ellen, she pledged to donate $25,000 in his name to North Brooklyn Angels. This non-profit group feeds needy people with deliveries of fresh-cooked meals from the kitchen at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church — Salerno’s parish.

Salerno said God continually blesses him. His life’s mission is to proclaim God’s glory by sharing his good fortune with those in need. Along with all the recent recognition, he received another blessing.

Salerno described how, after April, he got a call from a man in a Texas hospital who was recovering from COVID-19. The man said his child, a young adult, was one of the tenants whose rent was waived.

“From his hospital bed, he thanked me,” Salerno recalled. “He said ‘Thank you for being a father figure to my child while I was in the hospital.’

“But I tell people, don’t thank me, thank the Lord. And always be kind to one another, be good, and most of all, keep the faith. And always pass your blessings down.”

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