When it comes to my clients’ abusive landlords, I never back down, never show emotion, and fight until we win. But when it comes to my own landlords, I avoid, defer, and sometimes breakdown in tears (see note).*
Worst of all, I often find myself uttering patently false statements meant to placate ill-behaving landlords.
If my toilet breaks and it takes three weeks for the owner to fix it, I’ll end the debacle with: “I appreciate how patient and understanding you’ve been throughout this process.”
And when a landlord illegally withholds my security deposit, I bend right over: “I did think I left the place immaculate but go ahead and take out what seems reasonable to you.”
I’ve lived in New York City for six years, and I’m currently in engaged in my seventh apartment hunt. Given that my job requires me to engage with New York’s most heinous landlords, one might expect me to take a slightly more thoughtful approach to my own housing search. But, time and time again, I have colossally failed. Accordingly, with this post, I have one simple goal: To remind myself to remain strong, steady, and selective the seventh time around. But also, as my mother always says, if you can’t serve as an example to others, serve as a warning.
With that, here are my warnings:
Lesson 1: Exercise Extreme Caution with Significant Others: As the old joke goes, lesbians bring a U-Haul to the second date. But in New York City, with soaring rent and hour-plus commutes between boroughs, couples of all orientations combine households at record speeds. In my experience, the benefits of cohabitation never outweigh the heavy financial and emotional costs of moving when the relationship fails (likely not at the same time the lease expires). Proceed with extreme caution before intermingling your housing fate with another’s.
Lesson 2: Landlords should live at least a block away from their tenants
- The Lure of the Brownstone: Of course, the temptation to rent an adorable “garden level” apartment in a stately brownstone from a cute (and wealthy) family may prove truly overwhelming in the midst of a whirlwind apartment hunt. But resist. Just resist. Sure, you’re already aware of the potentially awkward politics surrounding sharing common spaces like the laundry room, backyard, and entranceways. But drawbacks go far beyond the utter lack of sunshine in the “garden level” and the need for prescription-strength Vitamin D supplements. Remember, the landlords and their minor children will overhear all of life’s most intimate moments: fighting with your partner, sobbing over a broken heart, and finally, rebounding with high decibel orgasms. I’ve done it three times. Just don’t do it.
- Multiple unit building: As described in past posts, eccentric landlords who live in one of the apartments in a multi-unit building might treat tenants as unpaid personal assistants. Before you know it, you’re plucking unsightly hairs off hard-to-reach places or experiencing far weirder hardships.
Lesson 3: Google and research the hell out of your new landlord: For work purposes, I always perform a basic background check on my adversaries. Often, simple online stalking reveals felony criminal records for all kinds of crimes tenants might find concerning. I’ve also found YouTube videos of a landlord throwing hard objects at a tenants or a newspaper article about a mysterious fire at the owner’s property. Do your research.
. . .
When finding an apartment, the application process is fiercely competitive and extremely stressful. Prospective tenants tend to skip steps, rush, or ignore my sagely advice offered above. If my lesson list has not sufficiently sunk in, the personal housing debacle I share below should really hit home:
Lesson 1 (Careful with S.O.s) Explained: After wrapping up my first job post-law school, I planned to take a sabbatical and move to another country to work on my Spanish. I had already packed my belongings into storage when a long-shot prospective employer unexpectedly offered me a job. Start date: Immediate. Nope, not negotiable.
As I began my second frantic apartment search, an elegant solution materialized before my very eyes. I’d been dating “V” for a few months, and she owned a co-op in a central area in Manhattan. Her new job required her to commute a few hours by car to the suburbs, and for the last few months, she’d had been planning to rent a cheaper place near work and sublet her Manhattan apartment. Between not knowing where to store her belongings and the complicated co-op rules, she hadn’t yet executed her plan. But now it seemed obvious. Of course, I would make an excellent sublettor. She could leave all her furniture and personal belongings in place and visit on the weekends. Truly an elegant solution.
In exchange for her charging a well-below market rent, I offered to pay three months up front. Sure, there were some initial hiccups. For example, her large extended family failed to digest the “apartment has been sublet” message and showed up at all hours wondering about the naked stranger in her bed (even though they knew perfectly well who I was..). But these kinds of disruptions I could handle in exchange for affordable and temporary rent. The true deal breaker came only a few weeks into our three-month synergistic sublet adventure:
One Saturday when I returned from a legal clinic in the Bronx, V had a meltdown, broke up with me, and started throwing objects at my head.
It was time to go. But where?
Lesson 2 (Don’t Live with your Landlord) Explained: After the explosive eviction from my Manhattan sublet with V, I lived on best friend’s couch for the week, and scoured Craigslist in search of immediately available apartments. During a conveniently-timed holiday weekend, my friend and I made three back-to-back interview appointments withs to see apartments.
A veritable cave, we crossed the first place off the list.
For the second appointment, we visited a young rabbi in a pre-war walkup in Harlem. Aside from the fact that the rabbi had a rent-stabilized lease (i.e. well below market rate), and clearly planned to profiteer off his roommates, the rent fell squarely within my budget. All went well until we sat down to get to know each other. After covering simple topics like cooking, cleaning, and shower schedules, we ventured into significant others and dating. Embracing the notion that full disclosure upfront trumps living with a homophobe (having already lived with a homophobe), I told him that I dated women and that I didn’t have a significant other. When he showed his acceptance by implying he’d be down for a threesome, we decided to proceed to appointment number three.
As an aside: to my credit, I was primed to see the next potential roommate as an angel sent from heaven so long as he didn’t sexually harass me or offer a room on par with a dudgeon.
Appointment three was with the owner of a gorgeous brownstone on a tree-lined street in the heart of West Harlem. The owner, a man in his 40s, bought the property before the area had gentrified, and bragged extensively about his sagely investment. Living the New York dream as a renaissance man, he made a money as a CrossFit trainer, a writer, an inventor, and life coach/therapist.
He and his wife lived in the basement; they wanted a tenant for the garden level that had its own entrance and bathroom. A third long-term tenant lived on the main level with the communal kitchen, living room and backyard. Although the kitchen looked a little disheveled at the time of my visit, the landlord promised that, upon his wife’s return from Europe, it would sparkle once again.
Finally, the landlord coined himself my “Friendlord,” offered to lower the rent because he valued my work in social justice, and emailed to ask what color I’d like the room painted. I agreed to move in immediately and selected the color teal.
Lesson 3 (Do Your Research) Explained: I hadn’t heeded the red flags or done sufficient research (if only I had found this dude’s blog…):
- The Writing: Friendlord wrote biblical erotic; he took biblical stories like Genesis, and described the “begetting process” in a lot of detail. I did “Google” his books prior to paying the deposit but the biblical erotica alone didn’t really seem reason enough to back out. I support erotica.
- The Wife: According to the other long-term tenant, Friendlord had a wife and she used to keep the kitchen in order. But in the eight months I lived there, I never met her. Apparently, her trip to Europe had been indefinitely extended. So, I begrudgingly took on the role as new kitchen wife (later giving up and just eating a lot of instant Ramen).
- Duck Hunting Season: When I moved in, duck hunting season was apparently upon us. After a trip up north with some buddies, Friendlord proudly brought back two duck carcasses. Although he graciously kept the skulls in the backyard, he shoved the remainder of the bodies into the refrigerator. The ducks’ feet dangled off the shelves, and anytime I attempted to open a vegetable drawer, I’d discover some pieces of duck toenail intermingled with my salad greens. Duck fat also sticks fervently to surfaces, and covered the kitchen for a few weeks.
- Animal Fat Rendering: By inventor, Friendlord meant that he had created a lotion out of animal fat. During the winter months, Friendlord headed to the Union Square Farmer’s market each Saturdays to collect leftovers from the various meat vendors. In order to transform the fat to lotion, he needed to “render” or cook it down for days in the oven or on the stove. While I had originally hoped the perpetual smell of cooking animal fat might remind me of sizzling bacon, it mostly reeked of dead rotting body. For months, I required male strength cologne before leaving the house in the morning. And needless to say, these were among the more celibate eight months of my life.
- Cooking Hearts: Because of Friendlord’s paleo diet, he ate meat almost exclusively. At any given time, our limited counter space was filled with boiling electric pots of animal hearts and sundry other organs.
- Sex therapy: I knew that Friendlord spent time in Union Square during the Saturday farmer’s market both collecting animal fat and offering to speak to strangers about their problems. But, I soon discovered that beyond unlicensed “life coaching,” he also used the basement to perform sex therapy on women and couples.
The eccentricities aside, my next emergency move stemmed from two major deal breakers with Friendlord:
- Deal Breaker 1: The tenants living above me had recently vacated because of an infestation of bedbugs. Due to a feud with his brother, who owned the upstairs unit, Friendlord refused to address the issue. Apparently, I feared the downward migration of the infestation far more than Friendlord did.
- Deal Breaker 2: In May, finding that fat rendering season had finally ended, I threw some pizza dough in the oven. Within moments, I discovered the kitchen engulfed in grease fire flames. Somehow recalling a lecture from my Home Economics teacher in 7th grade, I located Friendlord’s wife’s old baking soda collection and started attacking the flames (you can’t throw water on a grease fire; it’ll only worsen the situation). Finally managing to quell the conflagration, I sealed the oven and let the fire burn itself out. Friendlord came back an hour later to a smoky apartment covered in white baking soda. He seemed relatively unfazed by the near-disaster. When I asked him gently about installing smoke detectors to help warn the upstairs tenants of potential grease fires, he resisted. Smoke detectors, he told me, activate way too easily given his invention-oriented lifestyle. When I suggested perhaps installing smoke detectors in other areas of the home (like the hallway outside my room, perhaps?), Friendlord became irate: “I’m a homeowner, you have no rights as a month-to-month tenant, if you don’t like it, you can leave.”
- Deal Breaker 3: I didn’t even know about this deal breaker until after I moved out but Friendlord seduced a much younger queer woman I brought over for a quasi-date. I had decided she was too young for me (she was about 23; I was 30). Friendlord also had a blog dedicated to his “greatness” which detailed how much women and lesbians love him.
And so began my next emergency apartment hunt. Oh, and he kept part of my security deposit because he wanted to paint over those teal walls.
*Also in my paltry defense: my clients almost exclusively live in rent-regulated or public housing. These protections mean that my clients can fight for their rights and not worry about unjust rent increases or the owner’s refusal to renew their lease. In “market” (i.e. unregulated) apartments, if you don’t kiss the owner’s ass, when the leases is up, you’re basically screwed.