• Amy Stephenson

The Lease Saga

I've been tweeting about this on and off as developments happen, but I really wanted the whole thing in one place. In case it helps anyone, in case it helps me, in case I ever need it.

So here's what the last two months have been like.

We got an email on March 19th saying that our rent would go up by 25% when our lease ended on May 31. We live in Manhattan and I didn’t know if I was going to keep my job and there was no way we could afford the increase. Everything about what they were trying to do was legal, sort of, at least at first. I made some noise on twitter about it. This was back when everyone thought that maybe there was an adult in the room, or that someone might save us. Nobody thinks that anymore. It was only two months ago but it feels like another lifetime that I once had even the barest flicker of optimism that surely a crisis like this would necessitate an adult in the room helping people. Anyway. I wrote back insisting it must have been a mistake. Hi, perhaps you meant to email another unit? Also by the way I checked on Streeteasy (New York’s ubiquitous housing app), and there are units listed for less than you’re trying to charge me.

Back then, two months ago, there were the normal number of vacant units in the building, around 5. I had been in the habit of checking regularly, to see if I could guess what our rent increase might look like. But no, it wasn’t a mistake. The person with whom we were emailing escalated to her boss, who doubled down, and her boss said, in an email, that the reason rents were going up is because medical personnel wanted to live in the neighborhood, since we are close to the then-newly-opened Javits Center hospital.

I spent a lot of time blinking at that email, that absolutely stunning admission. I spent several days, in fact, in shock that I had been writing checks for a year to a man who could be so cruel in the face of the monumental suffering all around us—and at that, such specific, targeted cruelty towards those who were stepping up to help.

We did what so many people on Twitter and real life advised us to do: we contacted the Attorney General’s office. Alan submitted the proper paperwork and didn’t hear anything; I sent two tweets that got traction from some journalists (thanks!) and heard back from them via a DM in about an hour. They took it very seriously and we immediately started emailing details back and forth. The person we dealt with had a background in tenant law, and was mad on our behalf, which felt nice. Then there was a little bit of a lag. We waited. We browsed apartments, wondering if we’d have to move by June 1. The pandemic got worse. People started dying in numbers I still cannot fully comprehend, all around us. The sirens started and never stopped. The occasional ambulance parked outside, lights ablaze. We wondered which neighbor it was. While we sat on our hands, we watched the number of units in our building listed on Streeteasy steadily increase. Five and then twelve and then fifteen and then twenty and then thirty. Around April 1, we got an email from the AG’s office. They politely informed us that they had served a cease and desist to our landlord for gouging! Justice had been done, thanks to our intrepid reporting. Oh and by the way, said the email, it seems like your landlord will no longer be choosing to renew your lease at all, so I would talk to your lawyer.

Our lawyer. Our. Lawyer? We contacted the Bar Association. You are entitled to two low-cost consultations, and they give you two (2) referrals to call. One got back to us, eventually, and told us in a five-minute conversation that we would probably be fine because it would be ages before housing court reopened. So just stay if you want to stay, seemed to be the advice. And before we could ask the ten thousand questions we had, she hung up. The second lawyer referral never called us back. At this point I had, and I’m not joking: the Times, the Post, the WSJ, Curbed, Gothamist, Paper fucking Magazine, and easily a dozen other outlets in my inbox begging for my landlord’s name. The sheer volume of messages and emails I received about this caused me so much anxiety that I had to take down my tweets. I wanted so badly to talk to them, but also we didn't have a lease, didn't have a path to a lease, and I didn't want to poke the bear when we were still vulnerable. I wound up doing one anonymous story for Gothamist, with great thanks to Jake who used the information I said he could and withheld what I said to withhold and gave me no shit about it and was righteously angry on my behalf. You're a real one, Jake. But I did not give Jake our landlord/president or building's name, and the reason I would not give his name is because the landlord/president lives here and we see him all the time and he has a lot more money and at least one more lawyer than we have and, fine, I’ll say it: I’m scared. Of him, of not being able to get packages or have maintenance come if our toilet backs up, of big tall angry white men with money and power. (Someday, when all this dust is settled and we live in a better place, I hope that those outlets still consider this story about the NYC landlord who wanted to gouge medical professionals during a pandemic “newsworthy.” Because god, what I would give to say his name.) We asked around. I asked my friends, my twitter circle, my colleagues. Nobody could tell us what to do, because they’re all struggling like us or broke like we used to be or living in California where the system at least attempts to keep shit like this from happening. Alan and I fought, we numbed, we tried to cope, but we weren’t really coping. Alan was furious that someone could do this to him, that following rules and being nice didn’t work. I was mostly terrified of getting sick if we had to move. When I got swine flu, I was sick with the actual flu for two months, and after it was gone, I proceeded to get strep throat, bronchitis, walking pneumonia, and an abscess above my tonsil that was so huge and painful I couldn’t speak for a week, all in a row, one right after the other. After that, I started getting about four sinus infections per year, and that lasted through the rest of the time I lived in California. It wrecked me. It—and I believe this—almost killed me. Moving during this was the scariest thing I could imagine. Then, finally, something gave. My therapist asked her circle, and found a lawyer familiar with tenant law who would do a consultation with us. For $500. Alan immediately didn’t want to pay it. His anger was righteous, and having to pay a lot of money to get us out of our predicament made him even more furious. I was scared because I was sure we’d be paying $500 once and then billed repeatedly for every call or email. I was desperately afraid to be taken advantage of. (Also a common theme with me in general is that whenever I have an opportunity to ask someone for help I … don’t do that.) Alan and I talked and talked and fought and eventually we came to a place where we agreed to pay it and see what came of it. Surely, I said to him but really to me, a lawyer who is getting actual money out of us will spend more than ten minutes with us to help us solve this. I said it and said it, but privately I was terrified it would be another even more expensive dead end. When she called us, she was prepared, she walked us through the whole scenario, explained that despite what it seemed, contacting the AG—and having them care enough to issue a cease and desist, which is apparently very rare—did actually give us a solid bedrock on which to form a plan. She answered questions and laughed about how dumb and sloppy our landlord had been, and her bright humor was almost jarring after a month and a half trapped in our own terror and anger. She seemed excited to have something so easy to work with, to have so much stupidity to use to her advantage. After we hung up, she answered our follow-up emails usually within minutes. I had a little bit of hope, finally. After the initial call and the follow-ups, the plan was to wait until May 1 to see what they were going to do, because it seemed very likely that they wouldn't be letting us know formally that they intended to not renew our lease. In fact, we hadn't had any contact with them at all since the day before the AG letter got to them. If they were going to give us a lease one day, and then they got a cease and desist, and then the next day they weren't going to renew our lease, there was no way to interpret that other than "retaliatory" and therefore illegal.

So. We'd wait to see what they did May 1. See what other missteps they'd make. I hated the idea of more waiting, but she sounded sure, and we decided to trust her. Sure enough, May 1, we got an email with move-out instructions, despite never having heard from anyone again. We sent it to her, and she called immediately to strategize. Her plan was to find the owner of this unit (we are in a condo building). And she did. He is a plastic surgeon in New Jersey. He owns seven condos in this building that the building rents on his behalf. She wrote a letter that basically said, “Nice investment portfolio you have there, wouldn’t it be a shame to let 'getting dragged into a housing court battle for gouging medical workers during a pandemic even though the increase for them would amount to essentially a rounding error for you' happen to it?” On May 3rd at 9:45PM, we got a call from our lawyer. She was so excited she couldn’t complete an entire sentence telling us what was happening. “Hi guys, oh sorry it’s late, but I figured you’d probably want to know, and the thing is it’s not certain, and maybe we should talk tomorrow—know what, I’m just going to email you.” And she emailed us an offer of a new lease at a 5% increase. And when we talked to her the next morning, she was maybe more excited even than we were.

I've had landlord disputes before, god knows. I've been renting literally my whole life. But I've never had one when I didn't have the option to just fuck off and find another place. It took a lot out of us, financially and emotionally and spiritually. Living through this pandemic feels slightly more doable now, but something about being exposed to the way rich people are behaving to the rest of us—something I wasn't unaware of, but hadn't seen the bald face of, yet—broke something inside of me, and I'm not sure how to heal it.

Our lawyer, thought, was a dream, and she went absolutely above and beyond to help us. There, at least, is a small bright spot, that she cared and wanted to help us. (Don't worry, I sent her a very nice bottle of Japanese whiskey from her local liquor store as a thanks.)

In the meantime, I'm writing, I'm playing Animal Crossing, I'm surviving. Thanks to everyone who yelled with me about this and also sorry I probably didn't respond to your message. And thanks for reading.

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