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Tenants to Landlords: Pay Up!

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The midtown high-rise tenant, like a lot of New Yorkers, thought she was overpaying for her place -- but she also thought she could do something about it. "We saw all the vacancies, and there were ads listing our one-bedroom for hundreds of dollars less than we were paying," says the 29-year-old. "We were happy with the building, so I asked if I could break the lease to upgrade, and finally they said yes." She ended up with another bathroom, a dining room, and a balcony (an extra 400 square feet) for just $200 more per month.

It took a droopy economy and a terrorist attack, but it appears that New York renters may -- just briefly -- have the upper hand. Fed up with seeing new neighbors cruise in with lower rents, dropped fees, and free gym memberships, tenants are voicing displeasure -- and are getting their way. Says that (very happy) tenant, "I'm told other people in the building have gotten similar upgrade deals." Did it take a fight? "They gave me the runaround, but eventually it happened."

She's not alone. "With all the apartments on the market now, landlords are more willing to be competitive," says Robert Rissetto, the Olnick Organization's director of residential management. "If a tenant is paying 15 percent to 20 percent over market value, a landlord will probably look for ways to keep them." So if you've wanted a microwave or a new kitchen floor, now's the time to ask. "We've put in a lot of new appliances for longtime tenants recently. It's a way to solidify relationships while we invest in our properties."

Some brokers insist that the situation's not so tough. "Landlords aren't asking for rent increases, but they aren't retaining tenants at any cost, like in the early nineties," says Brian G. Edwards, executive director of leasing at Halstead/Feathered Nest. "They're more likely to offer a concession, like a free month, than lower a rent."

But that depends on the landlord. Maureen Walsh, director of renting for Charles H. Greenthal, says, "We always offer upgrades, but not with concessions. Although in one building, tenants saw an ad in the paper offering new tenants lower rents, and when the tenants in possession complained, we adjusted their rents to match" when their leases came up for renewal. That's happening all over: "I suspected the rents in the co-op where I rent had gone down," says a thirtysomething Tudor City resident. "I figured it was worth a shot." He made his case with listings showing comparable apartments for less, and soon his $1,600-a-month studio was $1,300. This isn't a fluke, says Elliot Adler, associate broker at Sumitomo Real Estate: "A lot of tenants are renegotiating their rents."

You'd better sign soon, though. The rental market, it's generally agreed, is beginning to show signs of recovery, and the window of opportunity won't last. "I've lived in the city for a long time, and I always thought this day would come," says the Tudor City bargain hunter. "But I'm very aware that next year might be payback time."


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