I’m a Housing Lawyer. And I’m Afraid of my Landlord.

It’s early January and I haven’t had truly hot water for about four months. In September and October, I could stand lukewarm showers. But when I get out of bed on a frigid winter morning, the prospect of putting my naked body in the shower feels like being torn from my mother’s womb.

Tiny Mouse

I also have a tiny mouse problem. By tiny, I don’t mean “no big deal.” I mean I have an infestation of extremely small size mice—the grotesque and abundant offspring of at least one disturbingly-hormonal pair of illustrative adult mice. I have never glimpsed these horny offenders but I know catching their fetus-sized offspring is like putting a Band-Aid on a stab wound. And yet, nonsensically, I remain dedicated to eradicating my tiny mouse problem.

The owner of town house-style building in gentrifying Brooklyn, my now-80 year-old landlord purchased the property back in the 1990s using a City-subsidized loan. She has a sprawling garden-level apartment and four tenants across the three other floors. Since her purchase, the building has at least quadrupled in value. Aggressive developers apparently make her frequent purchase offers. When the building causes her aggravation, the landlord likes to make a thinly-veiled threat to sell.

During my last housing search, having already toured a dozen corporately-owned buildings, it felt special to find an individually-owned property. The landlord decorated the stoop with potted plants, and adorned the otherwise-dingy internal staircase with packets of fresh lavender.

So, during my tour of the unit, the first and only question I asked her was: “are you going to sell?”

Her quick answer: “Over my dead body.”

I remember looking her up and down, squinting to determine if she looked at all sickly. While we stood on the front stoop discussing the the neighborhood, she even bragged about calling the police on aggressive buyers coming door-to-door. Quaint.

But, she’s no dummy.

Because the building has fewer than six residential dwelling units, it is not “rent stabilized” but “market rate.” This means the following unfortunate news (for her renters).

1) No one is entitled to a renewal lease after the first year lease expires. If she wants us to move, she only has to offer 30 days’ notice; and

2) She can raise the rent upon 30 days’ notice to any amount at any time after the first year.

Sure enough, when my lease came up, I heard nary a peep from my landlord. My tenancy lapsed into a month-to-month situation as per New York State law.  The rent didn’t change but I didn’t get a new lease either.

The landlord has let all the other tenants lapse into a month-to-month tenancy as well.  This means, if she wanted us all to move so she could sell the building vacant (which is how it would prove most valuable), it could happen in as little as 30 days at no real cost to her.

The broker who rented me the unit also informed me on a few occasions that the landlord considered selling a few years ago, and ultimately decided she wanted to live the rest of her years in the building. After her death, as per the broker, it’ll pass to her sons who can turn it into luxury housing or flip it to a developer. So I’ve been monitoring my landlord’s health fastidiously, and searching for vitamins to gift her Christmas.

. . .

Despite my fears that an extermination request could send my landlord into the arms of a hungry buyer, I sent a gentle text message about the tiny mouse problem.

The landlord responded by admitting that her exterminator had died last year (he was in his 80s) and that she hadn’t yet found a replacement. But she also implied I might be to blame: “You need to keep your apartment clean of food debris. I’ve owned this building for 22 years and I’ve never had a problem until you moved in…” The longterm tenants inform me, however, that this is a boldfaced lie.

About a week after I requested extermination, the landlord sent a “professional” who did nothing other than put down some old-fashioned snap traps, and ask me about my weekend plans. When I asked if he wanted me to move furniture so he might stop up some rodent entry points, he brushed it off, “nah, that’s a lot of work.” Neither the tiny mice nor their sex-crazed parents ever fell for $1.11 snap traps.

Another tenant who also happens to be my brother (that’s a story for another post), loves animals no matter how repugnant, and convinced me to buy humane traps. Assuming that the youthful Brooklyn mice might have hipster tastes, I loaded my personally-purchased (no bitterness there) traps with almond butter. To obtain this bougie bait, the target mouse has to enter an enclosed tube. The act of entering the tube trips a spring and closes a door. Nice and simple. And, turned out, they worked.

Almond Butter-Loving Hipster Mouse

Humanely-caught mouse freaking out at 2:00AM.  (Later released at 6:46 AM in Prospect Park).

Most of the tiny mice took the bait in the middle of the night, waking me up at 2:00 AM with desperate scratching noises (the traps are reusable but the plastic has tiny mouse claw impressions).

Thanks to the racket, on nights when my almond butter bait successful lures a tiny mouse, I’m up early. Because I can’t bear to kill rodents (and my brother has prohibited it), I drop the entire tube into a disposable plastic bag, run a few miles to the park, and release them. According to the Internet, “rodent relocation” requires their release at least three to five miles away.   (I haven’t had the heart to tell my brother that PETA cautions that releasing rodent more than 100 yards away results in their imminent death). Having now performed this ritual half a dozen times, most of the mice freak out for the first ½ mile and then relax into the rocking sensation of the run.

After I return from my now weekly mouse runs to a cold shower, I feel especially inspired to remind my landlord about my various apartment issues. But texting her causes me serious anxiety. Even though she doesn’t ordinarily take too long to respond, the moments up until her reply prove torturous. I compulsively check my messages every few minutes as if waiting for the results of a diagnostic medical test.

This time, I tried to go especially gentle:

Me (12-15-18 at 9:31 AM): Good Morning, Ms. Landlord: I’m wondering if the plumber might be able to come. I still don’t get hot water in the shower. Usually, it’s lukewarm which is a little hard in the winter. I also wanted to let you know that the traps the exterminator set haven’t caught any mice. I bought some humane traps and have caught seven so far though! (I take them at least a few miles away to release them so don’t worry).

Ms. Landlord (12-15-18 at 9:50 AM): “sorry. My sister just died and I really have to focus.”

Me (Immediately): “I’m so sorry.”

And that was the end of that.

As a housing lawyer, unfortunately, I know exactly how few rights I have. It takes just one fit of rage for my landlord to raise the rent $400.00 a month (it has happened to me before) or just send a pesky, “30-day termination notice.”

Sure, if she threatens to sue me, I can stay and fight for more time in the dreaded Brooklyn housing court.  But ultimately, without rights as a rent stabilized tenant, I’m moving no matter how hard I fight.

And once I’m in housing court, I’m on the tenant black list. Future landlords will see I have been sued, and my already difficult housing search will get even harder. Prior to finding this unit (next to my little brother!), I moved seven times in six years (see more about this here and here).  I coughed up huge broker fees. And, now that my job involves suing not just landlords but brokers, a housing search feels even more daunting. And so, I will continue to catch mice in humane traps and maybe purchase (what is likely) an illegal electric heater for my shower.IMG_0232-e1546478964577.jpg

Oh and my brother’s key just broke off in the front door lock. The landlord plans to charge him $300.00 to replace it (since it’s obviously his fault). I’m also on a mission to find a locksmith willing to copy a “do not duplicate” key.

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