Q: Two years ago, my wife and I got a roommate to share the rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment where we lived for 40 years. A year ago he stopped paying rent for his room – he didn’t claim job loss or other problems, he just refused to pay. We don’t have a written agreement with him so we asked him to move but he refused. We hired a lawyer, but our claim could not go through because he had the Emergency Rental Utility, and that case is still pending. He has tried to verbally intimidate me and has occasionally locked me out of my apartment. The police came a few times, but took no action. What can we do?
A: In New York, if you want a roommate to leave, you normally give him written notice — in this case 90 days, because he’s been there for two years and you don’t have a written agreement. If he doesn’t stick to that, you can take him to court after the deadline. But because your roommate has applied for housing benefit, you have to wait until that case is resolved in court before you can continue. So you’re in a holding pattern.
But this relationship deteriorates to an unstable living environment. “Unfortunately, in my 35 years of experience as a lawyer, hostile settlement arrangements like this one escalate from bad to worse,” said Lucas A. Ferrara, an adjunct professor at New York Law School and co-author of “Landlord and Tenant Practice in New York.”
As toxic as the relationship is, see if you can negotiate a settlement. Contact a mediator, such as the New York Peace Institute, which offers free support to New Yorkers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The organization may be able to help you and your roommate come to an agreement that restores peace in your home. You do have some leverage here: he owes you a significant amount for unpaid rent. You could offer to forgive that debt and forfeit any chance of taking him to small claims court later, if he agrees to move. Yes, you’ll lose money, but legal fees aren’t cheap and your peace of mind is valuable.
There are other legal avenues to follow. If you and your wife are concerned for your immediate safety, talk to your attorney about getting a restraining order, which may help evict the roommate from the apartment. Document your interactions with him, and save any police records you have to support your claim.
And once the housing benefit case is resolved, hand him his letter of resignation.
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