Landlord Anwar N. Faisal told the Boston City Council Wednesday that he was “extremely disappointed’’ to be accused of being one of the city’s worst slumlords, but insisted that he is improving how he maintains his apartments and handles tenants’ complaints.
Faisal, making his first public remarks since a Globe Spotlight series in May identified him as one of the city’s most complained-about landlords who cater to college students, said he recently hired a half-dozen new maintenance employees, obtained a handful of additional vehicles for his maintenance staff, and doubled the number of dumpsters outside the buildings.
As a result, he said, his company Alpha Management Corp. can fix most tenants’ maintenance problems within an hour.
But in a much-anticipated appearance before the council, Faisal rejected numerous accounts by tenants and some real estate agents in interviews and court records that Alpha routinely ignores complaints about unsafe conditions and sanitary code violations.
“It is extremely disappointing to me . . . after all these years to be accused by some politicians and a newspaper of hurting the people and the city I love,’’ said Faisal, who had been summoned before the council after missing two prior hearings.
Faisal said Alpha has inspected about two-thirds of the 1,000 apartments he says he owns in Boston and plans to examine the remaining third before tens of thousands of college students return to the city on Labor Day weekend. He also recently hired a new tenant relations employee, he said.
Faisal rejected accusations that Alpha refused to rent an apartment last summer to a Northeastern University graduate student because she was from India. The Boston Fair Housing Commission found probable cause in the case in June, and Attorney General Martha Coakley is investigating the student’s discrimination allegation as a result.
The Housing Commission corroborated the student’s allegation by sending three young people to pose as customers interested in leasing apartments managed by Alpha, according to city officials.
Two white people were offered apartments by a real estate agent who was showing apartments owned by Faisal but working for an unrelated company. But a third person, of Indian descent, was told that no unit was available.
“I came to this country and to this city as a refugee with very little to my name,’’ said Faisal, who emigrated as a Palestinian refugee from the Gaza Strip. “I worked my way up from the bottom, believed in the American dream.’’
About 10 current and former Alpha tenants, some of whom appeared to be of Asian descent, defended Faisal to the council. They said that they had never detected any prejudice when dealing with Alpha and that Faisal handled maintenance problems promptly and even gave them leeway if they were late with rent.
Nonetheless, Councilor Josh Zakim questioned Faisal’s commitment to nondiscrimination. Faisal’s lawyer, Joshua Krefetz of Boston, flanking his client at a table, said he gave the Fair Housing Commission the names of Indian and Pakistani tenants who live in Faisal’s buildings, prompting Zakim to say: “So some of my best friends are Indian? That’s not really a defense.’’
“Well, it’s a defense against saying you have a policy of not renting’’ to Indians, Krefetz retorted.
At several points during the hearing, Krefetz and Zakim shouted over each another. When Zakim asked Faisal how many apartments he owned in Boston, Krefetz told his client not to answer and chided Zakim for turning the hearing into “an inquisition.’’ Faisal ultimately said he had more than 1,000 units in Boston.
In contrast to Krefetz, who was combative, Faisal was polite and soft-spoken, prompting several councilors to say he should have appeared before the council sooner and without his attorney. After the Globe reported the discrimination allegation, the council voted 13 to 0 on July 30 to issue a rare summons to Faisal or face possible sanctions.
“Mr. Faisal, speak for yourself, and you will be much, much better served than folks who want to ratchet up this conversation,’’ said Councilor Tito Jackson.
The Spotlight Team series relied on dozens of interviews with current and former tenants, repeated visits to Faisal’s buildings, a survey of students living in 40 apartments in six of his buildings, and an examination of hundreds of court and city records. The investigation found that many of his buildings look attractive from the outside, but that apartments are often poorly maintained and some are overrun with all manner of vermin. Faisal declined to be interviewed for the series.
Over the past decade, Faisal and Alpha have been defendants in at least 22 lawsuits and 11 criminal complaints in Boston Housing Court, according to the court and city records. In the same period, he has received 469 code enforcement tickets totaling $51,720 for violations outside his buildings, including overloaded dumpsters, but paid only $3,010 in fines. Faisal attributed some of the problems to the rapid growth of his multimillion-dollar real estate empire in Greater Boston.
“There may have been times several years ago where our staff level did not keep pace,’’ he said.
Now, he said, he can address 45 out of 50 tenant complaints within an hour. The other five might take a couple hours if he has to contact a third party to fix something more complicated, like a lack of hot water.
Faisal said 90 percent of his tenants in Boston are students. Northeastern, one of his biggest customers, has paid Faisal millions over the past decade to house undergraduate students in the Fenway that it cannot accommodate in campus dormitories. Faisal said Northeastern currently leases 137 units from him that house 360 students.
Following the Spotlight Team report, Northeastern has said it is reviewing how Faisal manages his buildings. The school says that the review will be completed in the fall and that its business relationship with Faisal may be terminated if school officials are unsatisfied with the quality of his apartments.
Among those who came to Alpha’s defense at the hearing was Marilyn Gonzalez of Brookline, whose son, Max, a Northeastern student, lives in Faisal’s building at 49 Symphony Road. She said that the building is well maintained and that Faisal’s staff is respectful. Gonazalez said she could not stand to see Faisal “vilified like this in the newspaper.’’
Also speaking in Faisal’s defense was Andrew Lafuente, 24, who described himself as a Bentley University graduate hired by Faisal six weeks ago as director of tenant relations. Lafuente said that Alpha has bought new computer software to hasten responses to maintenance problems.
“The volume is so great in terms of maintenance requests that it just wasn’t organized properly,’’ he said.