How Not to Pay Rent

The lofty ambitions of tenants of illegal apartment buildings

Two musicians and a yogi have lived rent-free for two years in a Brooklyn loft. No, they're not living with their exasperated parents or beleaguered girlfriends. They are among the masses of New Yorkers living in illegal apartment buildings, and they stumbled onto the big advantage of residing outside the law: You don't have to pay rent.

Like a lot of young people, they moved into a place they could barely afford and lived together in a one-room loft. After a couple of years and a little research, they realized that landlords like theirs who rent out apartments in buildings not meant to be residences cannot legally collect rent, sue for back rent, or evict someone for nonpayment of rent. Thus began a long, free ride.

Of course, rent-free living is not guaranteed for tenants of illegal apartment buildings, since complex housing laws can always be reinterpreted and wily landlords can find unofficial ways to drive tenants out. However, in a city of mind-numbing rents and microscopic apartments, these three young men managed to creatively benefit from the city's illegal-housing conundrum.

illustration: Neil Swaab

Illegal loft apartments are increasingly part of the scenery in many industrial areas of Brooklyn—including DUMBO, Williamsburg, and Bushwick—as demand from manufacturer tenants has fallen. In fact, some housing lawyers estimate that there are hundreds of illegally converted loft buildings in Brooklyn. In East Williamsburg alone, the New York Industrial Retention Network (NYIRN) identified 27 illegally converted loft buildings in an industrial park. The NYIRN, a nonprofit that promotes economic development, is hoping to prevent more illegal conversions and preserve space for manufacturing, but executive director Adam Friedman makes sure to say that "the solution should protect the tenants."

He clearly remembers the fiasco under the Giuliani administration when the city cracked down on illegal loft buildings and temporarily evacuated 60 tenants from one building.

In 2002, brothers Jamal and Puge Ruhe and their friend Kevin Courtney moved into a lumbering, boxy building at 170 Tillary Street in DUMBO. Although their landlord offered them residential space, the old building was registered and taxed as a factory, and officially their lease was commercial. Other artists and musicians had accepted similar arrangements over the years and subsequently transformed their austere lofts into cozy apartments. But included in their bohemian existence was the daily drama of a poorly maintained building that was never intended to house people.

"When it rains, it pisses in over here," says Puge Ruhe as he motions to a corner of their loft. "We have clumps of stuff falling from the ceiling. . . . There are no fire escapes in here. We would die if there was a fire."

After a year of leaking roofs, soaked furniture, and a locked freight elevator that was only occasionally available for use, the landlord raised their monthly rent from $1,850 to $1,890. "As musicians living on the fourth floor, we need the elevator [to move our equipment]," says Jamal Ruhe. "So that was a primary instigator in our being pissed enough to risk getting thrown out of our apartment." The roommates balked at the thought of paying even more for their crumbling space and decided that they would neither sign the new lease nor acknowledge the rent increase. They waited for the building manager to say something, but as Jamal Ruhe recalls, "Nothing happened, and by nothing I mean nothing at all. Not a tenuous nothing, no word from anyone. And that went on for the better part of the year."

The ultimate in rent control: The loft on Tillary
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe

Meanwhile, rumors that at least four other tenants had stopped paying rent made their way around the building. A resident from another illegal loft building told the Ruhe brothers that she lived rent-free for seven years without incident. Inspired by that knowledge, the roommates stopped paying rent altogether in 2004. Again, they were met with silence.

"We were just all in some sort of shock about it because we thought [the building manager] was going to say something bad or have some sort of serious confrontation with us," says Puge Ruhe.

But after conducting a little research, Jamal Ruhe began to understand the silence. Apartment buildings that have at least three residential units must be registered as a multiple dwelling and must have a certificate of occupancy for residential use—a difficult-to-obtain piece of paperwork. If landlords don't have those documents, as was the case at 170 Tillary, they can neither compel tenants to pay rent nor evict them for nonpayment.

When the super finally questioned the roommates about rent last summer, Jamal Ruhe responded with a letter hinting at the building's illegal status. "I said, 'I'd be more than happy to start paying rent again if you can furnish me with a copy of my residential lease.' I wrote 'residential lease' five times in a paragraph and then we didn't hear from them for another six months," he says. "Not a peep."

The three roommates contend that they would have been happy to pay if the landlord had attempted to bring the building up to residential standards. The way things actually went, they felt justified in their actions.

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