A Queens councilmember known for confronting rule-breaking renters in her district has spent years barring inspectors from entering her own Whitestone home amid dozens of complaints that she’s illegally renting to tenants, a Gothamist investigation found.
New York City building officials say they have received at least 24 complaints about illegal apartment conversions and tenants renting out space in the attic, basement and other floors of the stately home owned by Councilmember Vickie Paladino and her husband since 2005.
The Department of Buildings’ reports show inspectors have never managed to investigate the claims because occupants either prohibited them from entering, or because no one was home — including during an attempted visit Monday.
Such rentals could violate rules limiting the number of households allowed on the plot of land, but also call into question what city lawmakers are required to divulge in their annual financial disclosures. Paladino’s son and spokesperson said the family is renting out the second-floor of the home to three tenants, but the councilmember has not claimed rental income in her mandatory filings because the property is listed under her husband’s name.
Paladino, a controversial Republican booted from a City Council committee for anti-LGBTQ remarks, is running for reelection on a law-and-order platform, calling for stricter policing and support for landlords in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Voting records indicate at least four non-family members have lived at Paladino’s Whitestone address in recent years — including two registered Democrats and an employee.
Paladino Jr. blamed the DOB complaints on a “disgruntled neighbor” who has feuded with the family for years.
“Any complaints have been frivolous,” he said.
But the claims keep coming.
The most recent complaint was filed in June, when a 311 caller said the home was being used as an “illegal hotel.” The DOB referred the complaint to the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, the agency tasked with cracking down on illegal short-term rentals, like Airbnbs, but inspectors were not able to enter when they visited on July 28, DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky said.
An inspector again visited the house on Monday but was unable to enter, DOB records show. The agency marked the complaint “closed” Monday afternoon.
The failure to complete the inspection fits a pattern at the property, according to the DOB.
Rudansky said the agency “has conducted multiple inspection attempts at the property in response to these 311 complaints, however we have not been able to get access into the building to conduct a full investigation as each time either no one was home to let us in, or a building occupant denied access to our inspectors.”
On one occasion in 2014, a DOB inspector said they were “denied access in a threatening manner by [a] male person,” adding that the man “threatens violence if we enter his property again.”
At various other times, inspectors said they were denied access by a woman who said she was the owner.
Office of Special Enforcement spokesperson Camille Adolphe declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Paladino Jr., the councilmember’s son and spokesperson, said he doesn’t know why inspectors haven’t been able to enter the home.
‘She has a lot of people living there’
The home sits on a quiet block near the Whitestone Bridge and features a large, well-manicured front lawn, stone walkway leading to a front porch and shrub-lined gravel driveway, where a car sat beneath a cover late last month when Gothamist visited.
Paladino’s husband, Thomas Paladino Sr., is listed as property owner on the 2005 deed and other mortgage records after inheriting the through-lot from his father earlier that year, his son said.
The illegal occupancy complaints against the Paladinos started shortly after they took over the deed and continued over the next 16 years, DOB records show.
“Illegal conversion S/R/O” reads a complaint from October 2006, referring to a single-room occupancy apartment building, a type of residence with shared bathrooms prohibited in the 1950s due to the association with crime, fueled by racist stereotypes.
“Boarding house at site,” reads another complaint filed with the DOB in February 2014.
“Two family home is being used [as] an SRO,” another complainant said in March 2021. “It’s overcrowded. There is no fire escape or egress at this location. It looks like a hotel in there.”
The complaints restarted in June, when someone called into 311 about the home being used as an illegal short-term rental.
Voting records show at least four people, including Paladino’s spokesperson Alexis Winters, have registered from the Whitestone address in recent years.
Winters did not respond to a request for comment, though Paladino’s son said she still lives there.
Gothamist contacted phone numbers associated with three of the residents: Two hung up immediately after a reporter identified themselves, though one called back two days later and identified herself by a different name.
Another did not return calls or texts.
No one answered the door when Gothamist visited late last month or when a UPS worker dropped off a package.
Gothamist also reached out to seven of Paladino’s neighbors. Two said they had no issues with the current occupants, but two other neighbors said the Paladinos have long rented out parts of their home. Those neighbors said the occupants take up street parking and have thrown trash on the road
“She has a lot of people living there,” said one neighbor who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from a current elected official. “They park wherever they want. It’s crazy.”
“She’s in City Hall now,” the neighbor added. “Now she has a position and is working in politics. These people, they do whatever they want.”
Paladino has celebrated the work of the DOB and other city inspectors in her district. In a September 2022 Facebook video, she vowed to call the agency to visit a Bayside home rented on Airbnb at the time of a shooting months earlier.
“Right now, the bottom line is that if the property owner is engaged or starts to be reengaged in what he used to do, in short-term rentals … be assured, we will get the DOB, the [Environmental Control Board] and we will make them aware of it immediately, and make sure they act accordingly,” she said.
A disclosure ‘loophole’
The tenant arrangement has also raised questions about the mandatory financial disclosure forms that elected officials must submit to the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board each year.
Paladino Jr. said that since the deed and mortgage are in his father’s name — the councilmember’s husband — they did not think they had to disclose the rental income on their COIB forms.
“There is nothing to hide there at all,” Paladino Jr. said. “We understood rental income to be something my father receives … My mother does not receive rental income.”
Paladino previously failed to disclose that she owed a debt to two lenders on her COIB filings, the Daily News reported in May. Her son said she would amend the filing again if the agency “has a different opinion” on the issue of rental income.
COIB Executive Director Carolyn Miller said that might not be necessary if the family included the information in the spousal portion of the filing, which the agency keeps confidential. Miller declined to provide the form.
Under annual disclosure rules, “income earned by a filer’s spouse – including income from a property owned exclusively by the spouse – would be reported in the spousal portion of the annual disclosure report,” Miller said.
Though the councilmember is not named on the deed or mortgage, she does identify herself as a “homeowner” in comments to constituents.
“It’s time for the people in this district to finally have a representative who understands what it’s like to be a taxpayer, homeowner, business owner and mother — and will fight relentlessly to protect what we’ve all worked so hard to build here,” she told the Queens Chronicle in 2021.
John Kaehny, the executive director of the government watchdog group Reinvent Albany, said Paladino’s situation points to a gap in disclosure requirements, noting that the city should change the rules to compel elected officials to publicly disclose household financial information.
“This is a loophole in the way financials are disclosed,” Kaehny said. “What would be much better than the way they do it is to change the law so the household business, earnings and revenues were disclosed instead of just the official’s, because the way they have it now is an invitation to elude the spirit of the law.”
Unlike the city, state financial disclosures require elected officials and high-level staff to disclose household income and the source.
Standing up for landlords
While many of her colleagues have coalesced behind pro-tenant movements in the wake of the pandemic and rising rents, Paladino has made her pro-landlord positions a central piece of her political identity since taking office at the start of last year. She has called for a crackdown on tenants who she accuses of not paying rent, squatting or breaking the law.
On at least two occasions, she has confronted tenants outside their homes in encounters that have reached hundreds of thousands of views on social media platforms.
Last August, she visited a man pulling out of his driveway at what she called a “known squatter house” in College Point.
“What kind of business do you do in this house?” she asked during a tense conversation that included an exchange of expletives before the resident of the home blew marijuana smoke and drove away.
“You know the newspapers will be here,” she said.
In a video uploaded to TikTok in June that resurfaced late last month on Twitter, Paladino confronts residents of another home in the district and accuses them of not paying rent and “breaking the law.”
“What’s going on in this house?” she said. “I am the elected official here to figure out what’s going on in this house because what’s going on in this house isn’t legal. You haven’t paid your rent in how long?”
The NYPD did not respond to an email seeking more information about the situation at the house.
Days later, Paladino released a follow-up video addressing the encounter with people she called “professional scammers.”
“My office has been inundated with a great many of you coming in and seeking help from other agencies,” she said. “We have taken proactive measures to launch multiple investigations, which, of course, they’re open so I cannot comment on them at this time. “
As she champions the rights of property owners against certain renters, court records show that the mortgage lender on the Paladinos’ home filed to foreclose on the property, claiming the Paladinos had not paid their mortgage since September 2021 — two months before the Republican won a general election to claim the seat. She’s running in a rematch against Democrat Tony Avella, a former councilmember and state senator, in the November general election.
Her son said the foreclosure boils down to a dispute between the lender and his parents over the repayment terms of a forbearance agreement — a temporary pause on mortgage payments — they reached after his dad lost his job as a truck driver early in the COVID pandemic.
“It will be resolved by the attorney,” Paladino Jr. said. “We’re not really concerned about it. It’s a matter of paperwork now.”
Paladino earns nearly $150,000 a year to represent a swath of Northeast Queens. Until last month, she listed the home address as her campaign headquarters on her reelection website. She now directs constituents to a campaign office in the Bay Terrace Shopping Center in Bayside.
In a loan modification agreement dated February 2019, Paladino Sr. said he is “experiencing a financial hardship” and at risk of defaulting on the loan.
Attorneys for Deutsche Bank did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment. The Paladinos’ attorney declined to discuss the case.
“My family is not wealthy,” Paladino Jr. told Gothamist. “My family has made no illusions otherwise.”