When Neil Rubler and his real estate company, Vantage Properties, launched a 24-hour call center for residents to request repairs or log complaints two years ago, the system was inundated with so many calls that it crashed. Tenants complained of exorbitant waiting periods before their calls were answered.
Rubler, Vantage’s chief executive officer, said he knew almost immediately something would have to change, and not long afterward the company hired the architect of the city’s 311 system to create a new center where Vantage employees bilingual in English and Spanish could respond to calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The center, used in lieu of a superintendent in about 14 of Vantage’s Queens buildings, logs how long each caller had to wait — now usually no longer than a minute — and what type of problem they were calling about, such as maintenance, billing or security.
“We found that when you buy a building, you have a super responsible for everything, and supers have varying degrees of expertise — some are great at cleaning, others carpentry,” Rubler said. “Supers are busy, and one thing is they’re not constantly available. What we’ve attempted to do with the call center is provide one place where customers can call morning, noon and night.”
Rubler said the call center now runs more efficiently for tenants in the company’s 87 buildings in Queens and allows Vantage to track ongoing issues. This kind of turnaround is the metaphor Rubler is hoping will be representative of Vantage as a whole.
Vantage Properties owns and operates nearly 10,000 apartment units, many of which are rent regulated, in about 150 buildings throughout the city.
Since the company was founded three years ago, it has been the target of criticism from numerous affordable housing advocates, including the Sunnyside-based Catholic Migration Office. The Queens nonprofit has helped to organize more than 1,300 disgruntled Vantage renters in the borough who have accused the company of harassing rent-stabilized tenants in the hopes of making way for residents who could pay for more expensive, market-rate units.
The CEO said he was both taken by surprise and personally offended by the criticism, which he called baseless. Rubler said he was especially upset when the Catholic Migration Office filed a lawsuit against the company two weeks after it bought many of its buildings from the notorious absentee landlord Nicholas Haros in 2008.
“We called Catholic Migration Office right away and said we wanted to sit down with them, but they wouldn’t,” Rubler said.
“Catholic Migration has a noble cause, and I’d like to work with them,” Rubler added.
Robert McCreanor, an attorney with Catholic Migration Office, said his office could not legally meet solely with Rubler. McCreanor said Catholic Migration Office attorneys have sat down with Vantage and their attorneys to discuss the lawsuit.
“We’re prohibited to meet with him without his lawyers,” McCreanor said of Rubler.
Rubler said he understands how “acrimonious” relationships have been between many landlords and their tenants in the city. But he believes that with time tenants, affordable housing advocates — of which Rubler said he is one — and elected officials will eventually recognize that Vantage is an efficiently run company that Rubler said he hopes one day will be compared to Toyota, Wal-Mart or JetBlue.
“Their quality went up, up, up, but their costs went down, down, down,” Rubler said.
The reason for this, according to Rubler, is because the giant companies focused on efficiency and made their targeted demographic the middle-class consumer — which is exactly what Rubler said he aims to do.
The company has installed security cameras at all of its Queens buildings, and employees monitor the footage 24 hours a day. The Vantage office in Long Island City is a constant flurry of activity, and Rubler likens it to an orchestra, with each employee knowing exactly what his or her role is.
The hard work, Rubler said, has paid off and the company has gone from facing about 10,000 violations when it first purchased its buildings to a little more than 1,000 currently.
“We are trying to change the lives of the people in our buildings, people who had been fighting against actual slumlords before us,” Rubler said.
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson
©2009 Community News Group
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