Monday, March 30, 2015

A $10K fine for a bad tenant review? Yelp!

I’m not much of a Yelp user.

Oh, I’ll occasionally take a look at what they say about a restaurant or hotel I’m thinking of going to.

But mostly when I’m trying a new restaurant, it’s one that I’ve heard about word of mouth. And for a hotel, I’ll usually do a flea-bag check on TripAdvisor, and google the hotel’s name and the word “bedbug.” (Hmmmm…I just checked the place I’ll be staying – on the recommendation of my client - in NYC tonight, and there was a bb incident last year. I’ll have to flip the mattress when I get in, which won’t be until nearly 10 p.m. Rats! I mean bedbugs!)

But once I started thinking about Yelp, I decided to search for what was being said about the property management company that manages our condo building, as well as a number of rental properties in the city. Their rating was 1.5 starts out of 5, which seems about right, if not a tad generous. I have no desire to get on Yelp and trash them, however. They’ve been generally responsive when I have had a problem that was “caused” by the building and not particular to my unit. And a lot of the problems we have working with them are no doubt due to the flakiness and inconsistency of our condo board (composed of all the owners, me included). That said, they have pulled some real boners in the past, and I would not recommend them.

But maybe I should start listening to vox populi more often.

What brought Yelp to mind was a story I saw a few weeks back on the ridiculous reaction that an apartment complex in Florida had to its frequent negative reviews in Yelp and elsewhere on social media. Windemere Cay began forcing:

…new tenants to sign a "social media addendum" that threatened a fine of $10,000 if they gave the place a bad review online…[The addendum] also forces tenants to sign away their rights to any photos, reviews or other material about the complex posted online.(Source: Huffington Post)

Specifically, the addendum stated:

“Applicant will refrain from directly or indirectly publishing or airing negative commentary regarding the Unit, Owner, property or the apartments,” the addendum reads. “This means that Applicant shall not post negative commentary or reviews on Yelp!, Apartment Ratings, Facebook, or any other website or Internet-based publication or blog."

Well, people have been complaining about landlords for as long as there have been landlords.

I well remember my first apartment, in Boston’s Fenway area, which I had my senior year in college.

Our landlord was Maurice Gordon, one of the most notorious slumlords of the era.

And, guess what? We knew he was a slumlord before we signed the lease, which just goes to show you that even before the days of social media, it was possible to actually know stuff.

Despite what we knew about Maurice Gordon, but he was pretty much the only game in that part of town, and all our other off-campus going friends were snapping up apartments on Queensbury and Peterborough Streets. So we did, too.

If this had been the age of social media, we might have had something to say.

Sure, they had painted the rooms before we moved in, but they hadn’t cleaned a lick.

Under the claw-foot bathtub, we found dust kitties the size of coon cats, and all sorts of empty liquor bottles.

The stove/oven was a relic from the 1920’s – a little enamel number on spindly legs called the Detroit Jewel. It was replaced somewhat early on, but it took a while to get a real refrigerator with an actual freezer to replace the archaic fridge (same era as the Detroit Jewel; a one step improvement over an ice-box). Of course, the old fridge was replaced with a new fridge that didn’t work.

Our complaints to the landlord fell on deaf ears, so my roommate and I took that train down to Dedham (I think), where there was some sort of GE appliance facility. After going haywire for a bit in front of a kindly manager, we got a fridge that worked.

I am blocking out what the floor in the kitchen originally looked like. All I remember is that we bought a blue and green linoleum rug remnant, which my roommate’s boyfriend – now husband – put down for us.

I remember Tommy going the extra mile to edge it with wood trimming, which he painted. (Hey, Tom, did I ever thank you for that?)

Our trash was thrown down a chute in the hall, which blasted out hot air when you opened the chute’s door. In my mind, the trash emptied directly into the furnace, but that is not, of course, possible. (At least I don’t think it is.)

The bad news was that some of the tenants left their trash outside the chute, in open paper bags.

Any wonder there were cockroaches? (I guess we can’t blame Maurice Gordon for  that.)

Once we settled in and got the appliances worked out, I don’t remember actually calling the landlord for anything. We were pretty self-sufficient. We knew how to use a toilet plunger, and Tommy – who was up most weekends – was plenty handy.

The place was a dump, but the public areas weren’t that bad. The front area – some grass and a walk – was reasonably well kept up. We were ultra neat and ultra clean in our own cozy little apartment.  (Although the one and only time my father saw the place, a few months before he died, we had to step over a drunk sleeping in the entry way to get into the building.)

Anyway, Joyce and didn’t really have much to complain about, but I’m quite sure that if the blogosphere had existed when I was in college, I would have gone to town on the move-in condition of the place and about our quest to acquire a fridge that worked.

Good luck to Maurice Gordon if he’s tried to collect $10K from us. He was lucky to get the $150 a month we paid him. Two bedroom flats in that area now go for $2-$3k. Even with inflation, that’s lot of money, so I suspect that expectations are higher than ours were. Which is probably true of Windemere Cay tenants as well.

As it turns out, Windemere Cay has rescinded the $10K gag order, claiming it had been put in place by earlier management.

But what were they thinking to begin with?

They should have just done what sensible companies do when they’re criticized in social media: a) calmly reply to the complaint; and b) if it’s your fault, do something about it or suffer the consequences, which will include more bad social media, in which folks challenge every calm reply you’ve given, claiming that you’re nothing other than a big bad of lying wind.

Did Windemere Cay actually think that the threat of the $10K fine was going to work? That there aren’t workarounds – as in ‘my friend lives in Windemere Cay…’ for someone who really wants to get after you?

I understand that it’s difficult to deal with online complaints, which may not always be legitimate and are generally anonymous, which no doubt makes some people more spiteful than they would be if there name were attached.

But the complete and utter stupidity of trying to stop the tsunami of social media by imposing an unenforceable fine on someone for participating in it.

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