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I Live in a Subdivided Apartment and My Roommate Refuses to Pay Rent

Q: I recently moved into a room in a three-bedroom apartment in Astoria. Each tenant has a separate lease with the owner, and the tenants are responsible for some utilities, with one roommate paying and the others reimbursing them. When I signed my lease, only one bedroom was occupied. Before I moved in, the landlord moved a tenant from a different unit into the third bedroom in my apartment. This roommate is an alcoholic, hasn’t paid rent for at least six months and has never paid utilities; recently, we’ve had to cover his share. I’ve asked the landlord to serve an eviction notice on this tenant, but she refuses. What rights do I have with respect to making the landlord evict the nonpaying roommate?

A: The lease agreement between the landlord and the nonpaying tenant involves those two parties — so no, you cannot insist that the landlord evict your roommate on those grounds.

As far as sharing utility costs, does your lease detail the various payment responsibilities? If not, try to resolve it privately with your problematic roommate. If that fails, you could pursue the matter in small claims court, but your success will depend on the agreement among the tenants. Did you agree in writing to share the cost 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 have witnesses, it’s just one word against the other,” said Lawrence Chaifetz, a real estate lawyer in Manhattan.

In the situation that you have described, you are 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 another 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 though your apartment may have been illegally subdivided. The city has a limited number 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 illegal, you can call 311 to report it, but that could lead 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 have to be corrected by the landlord, ending the illegal occupancy or legalizing the situation,” Ms. Black said.

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