It’s one of the most common stories in New York City; your landlord wants you to leave your apartment so he can renovate or rebuild, and raise the rent. (It’s happened to me twice in the past six years). It can be unsettling to have the person in control of your living space want you out, but keep in mind you have rights, and you could actually benefit from the situation — if you play your cards well.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
Is your apartment rent-stabilized? Nearly half the apartments in NYC are, so you might be surprised. Consult your lease, or check this list of rent-stabilized buildings. You could also get a rent history of your unit from New York State Homes and Community Renewal. If your apartment is rent-stabilized, you’re not only protected from large rent increases, it’s also much more difficult to evict you.
Even if you’re not rent-stabilized, you still have the legal right to stay for the duration of your lease. When my landlord wanted to clear out my previous building, he sent me a fancy-looking letter on official letterhead sternly ordering me to move out by a certain date. Several tenants in the building did so within a month. When I pointed out to him that I had a valid lease that ran for several more months, he abandoned his bluff.
IS YOUR LANDLORD HARASSING YOU?
Some unscrupulous landlords will try to “persuade” you to leave by making your life unpleasant. If you’re one of the last holdouts in your building, some landlords will start gutting the rest of the units, which can impact you with noise and air pollution. Others might “forget” to turn on your heat, hoping to freeze you out. In extreme cases, landlords have even demolished sections of apartments under the pretense of doing repairs, and then intentionally left them unlivable.
New York recently announced a program to combat landlord harassment. Basically, if a landlord is found to have engaged in any of the above behaviors, their permits to renovate or demolish will be automatically denied. Report these activities to the city immediately. (You should also report problematic landlords on trusted review sites like GoHomeNY.com).
There’s a type of behavior that doesn’t quite rise to the level of harassment, but could still impact your quality of life. One of my previous landlords called me or dropped by the apartment every day or two to plead with me to move out, and told me long sob stories involving his extended family about why he had to clear the building, put in granite countertops, and triple the rent. It wasn’t really harassment, but it was annoying. Eventually I told him I’d move out – if he made it worth my while.
UNDERSTAND THE STAKES
Let’s say your building has eight units in it. Doing some totally fabricated back-of-the-envelope math, let’s say those eight units now each rent for $1,000 a month, but after renovation will each rent for $3,000 a month. That means your landlord stands to rake in an additional $16,000 a month by clearing out the building. (Yes, he has to sink some money into renovation, but it’s a lot cheaper than you think, especially if the landlord is getting a volume discount).
Work that out for the entire year, and your landlord is looking at almost two hundred grand a year, above and beyond what he’s getting now. The only thing standing in the way of that is you and your lease. Let him know tat you understand the stakes, and he will either leave you alone for the duration of your lease or, more likely, he’ll be ready to make a deal.
What kind of deal? It depends. Sometimes a landlord will have a deadline on his end – maybe something involving financing, or contractors ready to start working – that will lend him extra urgency. If you play hardball, you could get a nice sum. Probably not as nice as the all-time New York City record, though – developers once paid a lone holdout $17 million to clear the way for a luxury building on Central Park. Leverage is a beautiful thing.
HIRE A LAWYER
This step is optional, but keep in mind your landlord almost certainly will be using a lawyer, and lawyers are professional negotiators. Could you go up against a lawyer and get a good deal? Maybe. It’s also possible you could beat a professional poker player at a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. It’s not likely, though. Lawyers cost money, yes, but a competent one will be more than worth it.
The lawyer I used in my last situation negotiated a move-out date months in the future, a five-figure cash settlement and, at the very last minute before signing, got my landlord to agree to waive my rent for my last four months in the building, essentially adding several thousand dollars to an already sizable settlement. The landlord wasn’t happy about it, but he wasn’t going to endanger $200K a year over a measly five or six grand. This is why people don’t like lawyers; it’s also why you should hire one.
If you can’t afford a lawyer though, you might be surprised how inexpensive one can be if you shop around – there are resources that give free advice to tenants. This hotline is a good place to start.
Written by a special contributing writer, Franklin Schneider.