Finding housing in New York is never easy. I’ve called NYC home for almost nine years and have had a variety of experiences with living arrangements. In late 2015, I had the absolute worst apartment experience ever when I discovered my new roommate was ripping me off. Finding out that she was illegally overcharging me was only the beginning, however.
First, let’s backtrack – I had to move out of the apartment I’d lived in for years when the owners decided the building would go full co-op. This is a renter’s nightmare, especially when you like your apartment but aren’t in a position to buy. So I began the hunt for a new place. I looked at a number of rooms but was having a hard time finding something I liked that was also within my budget. That’s when I answered an ad on Craig’s List (yes, some people still use this as a way to find apartments/roommates – I’ve had both good and bad experiences with CL). The apartment in question was within my budget, it was only a couple of blocks from where I work, and the pictures showed what looked like an adequate space. So I made arrangements to meet with the person advertising the room, a girl I’ll refer to as “H.”
The first thing I discovered upon viewing the space was the fact that it was actually a 1-bedroom apartment. H used the living room as her bedroom and was renting out the sole bedroom. With the design of the apartment, this actually worked fine as long as you didn’t mind not having a living room. The bedroom was on one side of the apartment, and the living room/makeshift bedroom was on the other side; in between was a small kitchen and bathroom. H’s room had a door that closed as well. For NYC apartments, this didn’t strike me as too strange. I mean, when I first moved here, I remember seeing an ad from a woman who was literally renting out her bathroom – serious, no joke!
H seemed fine, although I must say I didn’t warm to her in any way. Her current roommate was there, who seemed much friendlier – I actually talked with her more than I did with H. After looking around, I told H I was interested but would have to think about it. She was offering the room for $900, plus a $900 security deposit.
Lesson 1: Trust Your Instincts: I didn’t have a good feeling about the apartment for some reason. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but my gut was telling me not to take the room. I felt like I was missing something. I put off making a final decision as long as possible, hoping something better would turn up. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, so I decided to take the room with H. I wasn’t signing a lease, so I could move out whenever I wanted (giving an appropriate notice, of course). I had no plans on staying in the apartment long-term but figured it’d be ok for a while, especially since I could actually walk to work from the building. Unfortunately, I quickly learned what a big mistake I’d made.
I signed a roommate agreement with H, paying $900 for the first month’s rent and $900 for the security deposit. Fast-forward a couple of months, and I find a slip of paper that’s been shoved under the front door. It was a rental slip from the building management clearly showing the rent – I was shocked by the amount listed. The full rent for the apartment was less than $1300, yet H was charging me $900 for my half. I had a feeling she was overcharging me, but I had no idea it was by so much.
I talked to some residents in the building and discovered that I lived in a rent-stabilized apartment, which is something H never told me. After doing some initial research on my own, I found that NY housing guidelines are strict when it comes to rent-stabilization. In a nutshell, tenants are being protected from burdensome, unfair rental increases from their landlords – they’re getting a better deal on the price of their apartment than they would be enjoying in a building that wasn’t rent-stabilized. However, it’s illegal for tenants to make a profit by overcharging a roommate. Basically, they’re getting a good deal, so it’s not fair for them to turn around and rip someone else off – makes sense, right? By law, if the apartment is rent-stabilized, the rent must be divided equally.
In my case, my half of the rent should have been approximately $650, not the $900 H was charging. I checked with a housing attorney to make sure I understood the law. He verified that H was violating housing regulations. He gave me information about filing a complaint against her with the State of New York Division of Housing and Community Renewal‘s Office of Rent Administration, which I did. (Check out their website for more information.)
Lesson 2: ALWAYS ask for the Details: I was livid and decided not to pay more than $650 in rent from that point forward. I should have asked to see a copy of the lease before taking the room. I should have asked if the apartment was rent-stabilized. Anytime you’re looking for a room, make sure to ask these important questions. The official lease will show you how much the full rent is. I understand some people charge whatever they want when renting out a room, but don’t feel bad about asking questions. If it’s a rent-stabilized apartment, it’s against the law for them to overcharge you. If it’s not, you should still be aware of exactly how much the rent is and what you’re paying. When everything is out in the open, problems concerning rent are less likely to come up. If someone renting a room doesn’t want to show you the lease, that’s a big red flag.
I talked to H via text (our schedules were very different, so I often didn’t see her), telling her I knew how much the rent was and wanted to discuss it. We met the next day, but it wasn’t much of a discussion. She went berserk, telling me I had to move out right away. She wouldn’t admit that she had been overcharging me, nor would she verify how much the full rent was (though she didn’t deny what I’d discovered). It quickly became obvious there was no reasoning with H. She wanted me to move by the end of that month (September). I calmly explained that finding a new place in such a short amount of time was unreasonable. Also, I had a trip booked to go out of town over the first week of October. I told her I would start hunting for a new place right away with plans on being out by the end of October. I didn’t want to stay in the apartment any longer than I had to considering she’d been ripping me off. She agreed that the end of October was fine. When I asked her to refund the money she owed me, she adamantly refused. Since I was familiar with the housing laws, I informed H that I would file a complaint against her if she didn’t willingly refund the money. Again, she claimed she didn’t owe me anything.
Lesson 3: You have a Right to Feel Safe in Your Apartment: Things quickly got bizarre. At first, it was mostly weird stuff, like coming into the kitchen to find my coffee pot and microwave unplugged. I was in my room one day and heard H talking with someone. They then knocked, so I opened the door to find some strange man I’d never seen before; H was standing behind him. I’ll refer to the man as “M” to make things easier. At first, M was relatively calm. He started talking about the rental dispute, telling me I needed to go ahead and move out. I was a little confused – first of all, it was none of his business as far as I was concerned. Second of all, I had every intention of moving out as soon as possible.
Then, M started telling me that it would be better for everyone if I didn’t take the dispute to court. His tone got a little more aggressive as he told me I needed to just move out right away. I decided I didn’t have to talk to this man, which is what I told him. I also told both him and H that I’d already started filing the complaint. I knew H wasn’t going to willingly refund the money she owed, after all. When I told M I was done talking to him, that it was none of his business, he got visibly upset and started yelling at me. I shut the door, figuring he would go away, but he didn’t. Instead, he started banging on my door with his fist, screaming obscenities at me. He screamed that I would move out one way or the other, that he would beat my ass – that he’d make me leave.
I wasn’t sure what to do, but I didn’t like some strange man threatening me. I knew nothing about this M guy – with the way he was acting, I thought he was a lunatic. What if it got worse? I opened my door and told M that I would call the police if he didn’t stop beating on my door and screaming at me. He laughed, telling me to go ahead and call them. H was behind him, looking very concerned. She asked me not to call the police, so I told her to get her friend away from me then. He got into my face, which is when H reached around him, holding him back. I shut the door, totally freaked out by this point. M continued yelling and banging on the door, so I finally called the police. When he heard me on the phone, he backed away and went into the kitchen with H.
The police soon arrived. I heard M and H talking to them, telling the police that I was refusing to pay rent and they had simply asked me to move out. When the policemen came into my room, I summed up what had been going on in regards to the rent, then I told them about how M had threatened me. They explained to H that any rental dispute we had would have to be taken care of in court. They also told her that neither she nor any of her guests could come into my room. They told me they couldn’t make M stay out of the apartment, but it was up to H to make sure he didn’t harass me. And under no circumstances could he enter my bedroom.
I thanked them for their help. At first, I wondered if I’d done the right thing by calling the police. But the situation with M was very unpredictable. I had no idea how far he’d go. I also had no idea what H had told him to get him so angry at me. But, at the end of the day, everyone has the right to feel safe. H should have never brought someone into the apartment to try to intimidate me. From what I understood, H couldn’t afford to live in the apartment on her own. If I wasn’t going to pay the majority of the rent, she would have a hard time making ends meet. She thought she could get M to scare me into leaving right away so she could then get a new roommate to scam out of money.
The confrontation with M really shook me up. I took some of the boxes I’d been packing and stacked them up against the door at night while I slept. I also kept a hammer nearby. I honestly wasn’t sure what this M guy was capable of, but I didn’t want to take any chances. He was clearly unstable.
Side note: I talked to H’s previous roommate. She was going to sell me her air conditioning unit, so I had her number handy. I told her that I’d discovered H was overcharging me in rent. When she found out how much the full rent was, she was shocked. Apparently, H had been overcharging her as well. She said she was going to look into filing a complaint against H in housing court, though she also said she was mostly relieved to be out of the situation.
H had previously told me she’d lived in her apartment for about 10 years. My guess is she’s been ripping off roommates from the very beginning.
So anyway, I found a new apartment and made plans to move on October 31. In the meantime, some other weird things happened. I saw M a few times, though he never threatened me again. As I washed dishes, he walked over and put a piece of paper down beside me, saying, “You’ve been served.” He then went back into H’s room. I didn’t pick up the paper, but I did notice that it was something H had typed up, telling me I had to vacate the premises ASAP.
I actually got a laugh out of that one – telling someone they’ve been served doesn’t magically make it official. I did let H know that I’d be moving by the end of October. I asked her one more time about refunding the money she owed me, but H refused. She claimed she didn’t owe me any money. I suggested she confer with a housing attorney to find out more about the relevant laws. I think she was depending on M to give her advice, and he clearly didn’t know what he was talking about.
On the day I moved out, I saw M one last time. He approached me – while I was bringing stuff downstairs – and showed me a piece of paper with numbers scribbled on it. He’d done calculations, trying to convince me that the money H had overcharged me was justifiable. He said H cleaned the apartment weekly and deserved compensation from me for that. I just laughed and told him it was over – I was literally on my way out. M said he thought it’d be best if I didn’t take H to court. They knew I had a case against H, so they were still trying to convince me to drop it. I told M that I’d already filed the complaint and looked forward to settling the dispute through official channels. “Look,” I told M, “I don’t like you, and I have nothing else to say to you.”
And that was that. Other than a lamp going missing, my move into a new place was very smooth.
Lesson 4: Follow Through: A month or so later, I got a notification from the NY Housing department acknowledging they had received my complaint against H. About a year later (September 2016), I got more paperwork from the housing department. They sent me H’s response to my complaint, which she had filled out earlier in the year (it took a while for them to send it to me). They asked for my response, which I quickly submitted.
In December, I received their judgment. They found in my favor, saying H had illegally overcharged me in rent. They said H had 30 days to refund the money she owes me.
So, even though it took over a year, I’m vindicated at last. If you find yourself in a situation like mine, take the time to file a complaint. It might take a while, but it’s well worth the wait. This way, people like H will think twice about ripping off their roommates. Keep in mind that H’s landlord now has grounds to evict her. If you live in a rent-stabilized apartment and are found to have illegally overcharged your roommate, the landlord can immediately evict you.
Speaking of landlords – I talked to H’s building management during this ordeal, and they were not happy at all. They told me H didn’t have permission to have a roommate in the first place. I’m not sure if they’ve made any move to evict her, but at least they know what she’s been up to in their building. I really would hate to see anyone else go through what I did with H as a roommate.
Check out the link below to see the “Order Granting Application” I received from the NY Housing division. I’ve redacted some identifying information.