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Their roommates left NYC during coronavirus. What happens when rent is due?

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Some New Yorkers are experiencing newfound solitude—and anxiety over upcoming rent payments—after their roommates left town

Illustration by Natalie Nelson

The novel coronavirus pandemic has altered daily life in countless ways, and for many New York City renters, that includes a reshuffling of their living situations.

When COVID-19 began spreading throughout the city, a drove of New Yorkers left town, opting to temporarily move back home with family or take shelter in second homes. Those who stayed local didn’t necessarily stay put: Some ditched their apartments to co-quarantine with a significant other or friend.

As a result, some of the New Yorkers left behind have found themselves suddenly living alone, the sole occupant in an apartment of newly deserted rooms. The newfound solitude presents a mix of luxury and anxiety; having all that space and privacy to yourself can feel both indulgent and isolating. But for some, it’s also leading to financial woes: How am I going to cover the rent if my roommates don’t come back?

In some cases, roommates who defected continue to pay their share of the rent from afar, but with no guaranteed return date, that arrangement offers only a temporary sense of security. Tiana Timmerberg has been living alone in her Bushwick two-bedroom since her roommate moved in with family in Philadelphia at the end of March. While Timmerberg currently appreciates the perks of “working out in the living room and ordering a lot of Grubhub without judgment,” she misses the company and is anxious about her roommate’s ability to pay in the months to come.

“I’m definitely worried about the future of it,” says Timmerberg, who works in publicity at Atlantic Records. “My parents live in Indiana and they’ve already been gently encouraging me to think about what would happen if [my roommate] stopped paying rent. She manages a clothing store, so how long will they be able to pay her?”

This concern is well-founded, as more than a million New Yorkers have filed for unemployment since mid-March due to COVID-19-related layoffs or furloughs. And the precarious job market isn’t likely to bounce back anytime soon: A recent report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs projects the economic impact from the coronavirus will continue for months, if not years, with more devastating repercussions than 9/11, the 2008 recession, or Superstorm Sandy.

Similarly, reporter Jeff Coltin has been living solo in his Bed-Stuy apartment since his two roommates left the city to be with family in California and Oklahoma. Both paid their share of the April rent, but suggested getting subletters for May. Coltin requested that they wait until June, when the lease is up, because “he’s not super comfortable with new, possibly germ-riddled roommates for the last month of the lease.” They complied. Coltin says he emailed his landlord about going month-to-month beginning in June, and he agreed, with a vague caveat: “Let’s revisit this at the end of April to see what the current condition of the world is at that time.”

For cash-strapped renters who are uncertain about how they, or their roommates, will make payments in coming months, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 90-day eviction moratorium offers only a temporary reprieve. Until June 20, landlords can’t legally evict renters who are behind on rent, but after that, eviction proceedings are fair game; you, along with anyone you live with, can be held accountable for your debts in court.

“One of the really important things for roommates to know is if you’re on the lease, you’re responsible for the rent,” says Andrea Shapiro, program manager and member organizer at the Met Council on Housing. “People often think they’re only responsible for their share of the rent, but landlords are actually not allowed to collect rent like that in New York.”

Roommates who are on a lease together are known as “co-tenants,” and even if they pay different portions of the rent, collectively they’re responsible for the total. To break that down: If you can pay the rent, but your co-tenant can’t, you both could still end up in housing court, Shapiro explains. If your co-tenant gets a subletter who then fails to make rent, you are also both responsible for the subletter’s nonpayment.

You do have the option of suing your co-tenant, or their subletter, in New York City Small Claims Court. But if you made a verbal, as opposed to written, agreement regarding how rent is divided among roommates, it can be challenging to prove who owes what in court, according to Shapiro. If the delinquent roommate left town, that makes it even more difficult to hold them accountable.

Ideally, at the beginning of a lease, co-tenants should write up and sign a standard roommate agreement covering all the bases: who owes what, how that payment will be made, and what happens is someone doesn’t pay, or wants to move, according to Seth Miller, a landlord and tenant attorney in New York City. If you can get something in writing now, it’s not too late; there are free templates online. Miller also recommends consulting with a lawyer to make sure what you draw up spells out obligations as well as consequences.

Negotiating a payment plan, or a modified lease agreement, with your landlord is another option, according to Shapiro. Just make sure the terms are written and signed—even if it’s just an email response confirming the agreement—and that you’re capable of meeting the terms financially. “What we’re hearing is landlords are offering deals that people actually can’t afford,” Shapiro says. “They’re saying, ‘Oh, we’ll take 10 percent off rent,’ or, ‘Okay, don’t pay rent this month, but in two months you’ll owe twice as much.’ But some tenants can’t afford that, so putting that in writing is no more useful.”

Gabriela Gabrielaa, a freelance photographer who is currently receiving unemployment since losing work due to COVID-19, has had to get creative. Her three roommates left town to move in with family, and each of their prospective subletters fell through before April 1, the date of the apartment’s yearly lease renewal. Unable to find replacements for the replacements, and determined to stay in her Williamsburg loft (where the rent is under $1,000/month), Gabrielaa is currently negotiating a 90-day lease with her landlord, stipulating that she would pay only her portion of the rent for the next three months.

“I’ve lived in New York for 10 years,” Gabrielaa says. “I don’t feel safe moving right now. I really love this apartment, I don’t want to let it go and then the management converts it into a $5,000 loft.” Her idea was to pay what she can for now, then replace her roommates in July, when the pandemic may have calmed down and moving becomes more feasible. The plan almost came together, except for one detail: The landlord added in the contract that come July, Gabrielaa has to move out. She’s currently consulting with a lawyer, as well as her building’s tenant association, to figure out her best options.

Another approach may be to unite against landlords by collectively withholding rent as part of a building-wide strike. The Met Council is one of several tenants’ rights groups that’s organizing a statewide rent strike, and Shapiro argues that without legislation to freeze or suspend rents in the city, this is the most effective form of collective action tenants can take.

“It’s more useful for roommates to band together and fight for political change to happen and rent relief, where we are going to solve the problem that way, rather than with fighting with each other,” she says. “It isn’t anything new for roommates to not pay each other. All these [scenarios] you’ve seen before, it’s just happening at such a grand scale that something really needs to be done.”