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Jeff Seal promoting rent control in New York City
When actor and comedian Jeff Seal said he evicted tenants for fun at a Manhattan landlords' convention in 2018, he got mention on the convention’s company website. When asked about his undercover acting, the actor and filmmaker told Quail Bell Magazine, “No one said, ‘Oh, geez, that's unethical.' Instead it was, ‘Oh great. We'd love to do business with you.’”
In collaboration with co-producers Nick and Chris Libbey, filmmaker and New Yorker Jeff Seal released his latest three-episode mini docuseries, New York's Worst Landlords, on YouTube April 8th. The film catalogs comedian Jeff Seal’s attempts to interview landlords on New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams’ annual Worst Landlord Watchlist, which organizes the top repeat landlord offenders. Seal attempts to contact landlords by phone, impromptu interview, email, and eventually undercover acting. The result is a (free to watch!) chronicle of one man's efforts to get answers from New York City landlords getting away with neglectful and exploitative strategies for hundreds of properties.
The series includes interviews from tenants of landlords from the Office of the Public Advocate’s Worst Landlord Watchlist, whose buildings experience rat infestations, water and heating outages, and collapsing ceilings. Of course, there is no response from the buildings' landlords. Nick Libbey says the project was motivated by the clear need for New York City landlords to stop getting away with gathering rent from tenants with no plans of ensuring their health or safety.
“We need to have laws in place to protect people because some are living in constant fear of the people in charge of their most basic need: shelter,” says Nick.
Seal and the Libbey brothers are denied, hung up on, and redirected throughout the three episodes so often that the crew starts showing up in person to landlord offices. This is part of their attempt to interview the landlords on their neglectful responses to tenant water and electricity outages and cockroach infestations. During these impromptu visits, the Libbey brothers never hid their cameras but instead hold them casually, always filming and recording audio of landlord interactions. Nick told Quail Bell that they filmed from a camera sitting on a snack table during the undercover operation at the Manhattan Landlord convention to be discreet. Nick says he “put our camera on a table where people were eating, just trying to act like a production crew on break.”
When asked about the interview and audio taping process, Seal and Libbey say they constantly doubted their routine of springing on landlords unannounced. “We were perfectly willing to sit down and have a conversation with them, but they wouldn't do that,” says Seal. “We're just trying to ask questions of people that refuse to be accountable for their actions.”
But Seal and the Libbey brothers had very little to lose, unlike the tenants of New York City’s "worst landlords." “Every tenant that we talk to expressed fear of their landlord. We are privileged in the fact that we don't need anything from these landlords,” says Nick. Tenant union organizers and tenants had their homes, reputation, and safety to lose if their landlord called the cops on them, while Seal and The Libbey brothers only had footage to gain. The three white guys felt immune to anxiety and fear when confronting landlords who threatened to call, sue, or have them arrested. Jeff told Quail Bell, “With my white skin privilege, I was like, call the cops. We're not doing anything illegal."
New York's Worst Landlords is available on Jeff Seal’s YouTube channel.
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