Q: I recently moved right into a room in a three-bedroom apartment in Astoria. Each tenant has a separate lease with the owner, and the tenants are accountable for some utilities, with one roommate paying and the others reimbursing them. When I signed my lease, just one bedroom was occupied. Before I moved in, the owner moved a tenant from a distinct unit into the third bedroom in my apartment. This roommate is an alcoholic, hasn’t paid rent for at the least six months and has never paid utilities; recently, we’ve needed to cover his share. I’ve asked the owner to serve an eviction notice on this tenant, but she refuses. What rights do I actually have with respect to creating the owner evict the nonpaying roommate?
A: The lease agreement between the owner and the nonpaying tenant involves those two parties — so no, you can’t insist that the owner evict your roommate on those grounds.
As far as sharing utility costs, does your lease detail the varied payment responsibilities? If not, attempt to resolve it privately together with your problematic roommate. If that fails, you would pursue the matter in small claims court, but your success will depend upon the agreement among the many tenants. Did you agree in writing to share the price of utilities? Did you discuss it in person, and is there a record of that conversation, or any witnesses?
“Oral agreements are enforceable, but unless you will have witnesses, it’s only one word against the opposite,” said Lawrence Chaifetz, an actual estate lawyer in Manhattan.
In the situation that you will have described, you are usually not “roommates” but tenants with separate rental agreements, said Steven Ben Gordon, a tenant attorney in Queens. You may request that your landlord go to housing court if one other tenant is interfering with the health, safety, or quiet enjoyment of your unit, in what’s called a nuisance holdover case. However, that process can take years, and most tenants aren’t willing to go to housing court to participate, Mr. Gordon said.
Moreover, it sounds as if your apartment could have been illegally subdivided. The city has a limited variety of rooming houses, or single-room occupancy units, and the laws regulating these buildings are different. You can check with the Department of Buildings and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to see if yours is a legal single-room occupancy unit.
If the setup is unlawful, you may call 311 to report it, but that could lead on to you losing your lease, said Rosalind Black, director of citywide housing at Legal Services NYC, which provides free legal assistance to low-income New Yorkers.
“Such a violation would need to be corrected by the owner, ending the illegal occupancy or legalizing the situation,” Ms. Black said.
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