If your landlady dies without a clear heir to the building, don’t do what this couple did: just stop paying rent.
A Greenpoint resident we’ll call Jay (it’s not his real name) and his wife were paying $1,700 a month for the spacious top floor of a three-unit building on Leonard Street when their Polish landlady — who occupied the parlor-level unit — unexpectedly passed away. A man claiming to be the landlady’s cousin, perhaps a relative of her deceased husband, soon appeared asking for the rent.
“We said no,” Jay recently told Brownstoner. “It didn’t feel right to pay someone without knowing if they were the executor of the estate.” The couple soon learned that the landlady’s estate was being disputed in court.
The landlady’s cousin appeared again to tell them to put their rent in an escrow account. “But we didn’t,” Jay admitted. “Because, well, it’s New York and whatever extra money you have gets spent.”
As the legal system worked, Jay and his wife became the de facto caretakers of their dilapidated apartment building — fixing minor building problems, shoveling snow, and paying the real estate taxes, as well as the gas and heating bills.
For a time, things were good. “The apartment was huge,” Jay recalled. “It was a railroad apartment on steroids.” The 1,200-square-foot unit had windows in every room and enough space for a dining room.
But then things fell apart. Literally. First the refrigerator broke, then the hot water was shut off for several weeks, and Jay discovered shoddy electrical wiring that was certainly not up to code. As the problems mounted and the stress of their situation increased, the rent-free digs felt like less and less of a good deal.
Jay and his wife decided to move around the time the legal case was finally resolved — about a year after their landlady died. Ownership of the property was granted to the man who’d first approached them about the rent. And he wanted them to pay up.
The landlady’s relative hit them with a summons requiring Jay to pay the full amount of rent for the 12 months since her death, not discounting the bills. It was more than $20,000. And they had 10 days to pay.
“Those last few months were super stressful,” Jay remembered. He and his wife were moving into a Park Slope apartment (a third the size of their Greenpoint place, and more expensive) at the same time they were trying to resolve the rent issue.
“Luckily, my sister is a lawyer,” Jay said.
She filed a petition on Jay’s behalf and walked him through the legal process. After a drawn out back-and-forth between the cousin, the cousin’s lawyer, Jay, and his sister, they reached a settlement.
Jay’s advice to those who might find themselves in a similar situation? “Don’t pay anyone who can’t legally collect the rent. And if there isn’t anyone, put it in escrow.”
Photo by Christopher Bride for PropertyShark