How Not to Pay Rent

The lofty ambitions of tenants of illegal apartment buildings

The legal landscape shifted in March 2005 with the court's decision in Czerwinski v. Hayes, which held that housing courts should hear eviction cases in illegal apartment buildings as long as the landlord did not try to recover back rent. (The decision is only binding in New York's Second Department; in other parts of the city, landlords still can't go to Housing Court if their building is illegal.)

The precedent allowed Guttman to start kicking people out with relative ease. "His previous alternative was to go to Supreme Court, which takes significantly longer, probably two years instead of six months," says Guttman's attorney, Gerry Proefriedt. Last fall, after only one verbal warning months earlier, the roommates and tenants of three other lofts in the building were served with court summonses initiating holdover proceedings, a com- plicated type of eviction that does not dispute issues of rent.

Courtney and the Ruhe brothers hired Dalnoky, who asked for continuances that lengthened their rent-free living situation by several months. However, they eventually had to face the inevitable: Go to trial or agree to a settlement. As is often the case, a settlement was preferable to both sides since trial would mean months of lawyers' fees and the risk of the unknown. The other tenants who had been called to court chose cash settlements—one tenant got $8,000, another $5,000, according to Proefriedt. The Ruhes and Courtney chose time over money, and agreed to move out by July 31.

illustration: Neil Swaab

Now the roommates are caught in the chaos of moving. On a mid-June evening, Puge Ruhe sorts through a stack of old instruments, attempting to play a dented WWII bugle that's been passed down through his family. As he sorts through four years of accumulated CDs, books, mementos, and musical equipment, he says he is "absolutely unprepared" to move and has low expectations for finding a place he can actually afford. The experience of living in an illegal building has made him wonder at the strange phenomena of New York housing.

Looking out from 170 Tillary Street in apartment 405 onto a new construction site being built on Wednesday 12th of July 2006.
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe

"It begs the question of what you are actually paying rent for," he says. "Do you pay someone an astronomical amount of rent just to have a roof over your head, or do you pay for a certain amount of safety, or do you pay for convenience? Because we haven't had any safety or convenience living here."

The court has turned a blind eye to the landlord, who continues to take rent from residents of the former sweater factory with a leaking roof and no fire escapes. "Usually nothing happens" after a case like this, says April Newbauer, attorney in charge at Legal Aid's civil practice in Queens. "We see the same units being rented out over and over. It could go on indefinitely like that. It is not an individual judge's job to become a whistle-blower for future cases."

Meanwhile, Guttman probably won't have any trouble finding new tenants willing to pay loads of money for the soon-to-be-vacant loft. According to court documents, the landlord estimates the "reasonable value" of the loft is at least $3,000 per month. But then, "reasonable" is a relative term.

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