Out of Control

“I’m making the calls in the other room! Whispering!” says F.*, a semi-retired graphic designer on the Upper West Side. She’s afraid her roommate will overhear her talking about her rent. If he does, F. – who has lived in her two-bedroom for 25 years – could be priced out of her apartment.

It’s a familiar New York situation: Someone with a rent-stabilized or -controlled apartment takes in a roommate, who pays more than his share but less than market rate. Both sides benefit; neither complains. But as of December, charging a roommate more than half the total is illegal, per the Department of Housing and Community Renewal, the state’s rent-law agency. And many tenants – those who can’t handle the rent on their own – are freaking out.

The ruling has been posited as a way to prevent gouging. “It does not discourage tenants from having roommates; it merely ensures that the rent charged them is fair, just, and equal,” says DHCR spokeswoman Debbie Del Pino. But landlord lobbyists pushed for its passage, says Sandy Russo, housing-law coordinator at Legal Services for New York City. “All the landlord literature that’s crossed my desk says ‘It’s a great day for landlords!’ ” – especially those who want their long-term tenants to give up and head for Boca. Some owners want to use the rule to evict anyone who’s overcharging a roommate. “The supers and doormen are becoming snitches,” says F.

Among elderly tenants, the stories are heartbreaking. S., a 71-year-old, lives on the East Side under a scrie (a rent freeze for poor tenants). Her rent is $895; her income, $795. Her roommate is “delighted” to pay $600, as one observer put it. Under the new law, the roommate’s rent drops to $448 – and neither of them can stay.

At New York Habitat, an agency that finds roommates and sublettors, vice-president François Roux says the panic is sinking in. “A lot of people have called us and said ‘I want to list my apartment, but only if I can rent it for what I was charging.’ ” When Roux breaks the news, “they tell us, ‘I’m in trouble. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ “

What they’ll do is leave. But housing advocates are digging in. “The DHCR didn’t have the power to promulgate such rules. Only elected officials can,” fumes Russo. Besides, “what about alternative families? Are we going to have to prove that they’re acting as a married couple? A landlord should have no right to be so invasive.”

*Some names and identifying details have been changed.

Out of Control