Inside Stories

When your landlord is like family, the rent is low and the boyfriends tiptoe

By Elizabeth K.  | August 9, 2011 - 10:53AM

When I moved to Brooklyn a little over two decades ago, I was broke and desperate.

My crappy publishing job only paid $18,000 a year (before taxes). I’d had to leave my Upper East Side share in a hurry because I’d found out that my Village Voice-ad roommates had been stealing cash from me. My Midwestern parents were begging me to move back home.

Thankfully, some acquaintances I’d met through my then-boyfriend stepped in at the eleventh hour and threw me a lifeline: Aunt Margie and Uncle Vinnie (not their real names), who had a three-story apartment house in Park Slope. They lived on the third floor and their son lived on the second; the first floor had been empty for a year because they hadn’t liked anyone who came to look at it. Aunt Margie called my boyfriend and said the place was mine if I wanted it. I did.

Twenty-one years later, I’m still there. And I’ve learned that having landlords who are like family is mostly wonderful...but occasionally problematic. 

The Pros

1. Companionship.

Back in 1989, I was new to the city and therefore had few friends. That first year in Brooklyn, I felt even more isolated, as there was no Park Slope nightlife back then.

Sensing my loneliness (which was probably glaringly apparent), Aunt Margie called me almost daily and invited me up to dinner. After every homemade Italian meal, she and Uncle Vinnie and I would spend hours sipping Glenlivet, eating pistachios, playing Rummy 500 and talking about everything from politics to religion to current events to our own childhoods.

More recently, the two of them sat up with me all night after my mom had a near-fatal car accident and I had to wait nine hours for a flight out. They’ve also looked after me when I’ve been hospitalized.

2. Security.

If I have a bad cold, Aunt Margie will bring me down a bowl of homemade chicken soup.

If I see an enormous waterbug at 3:00 a.m., Uncle Vinnie will come down, give me a sleepy kiss on the cheek and slay the monster for me.

If delivery or fix-it men have to come into my apartment, we all leave our doors open so the men know I’m not alone in the building.     

3. No lease.

That’s right: I don’t have a lease. And Aunt Margie (who initially was co-owner of the building, along with her two sisters) lowered the rent by $200 a month so I could afford to live there. Twenty-one years later, my rent is still well below the going rate for my now-pricey neighborhood.


The Cons

1. Forced interactions.

You know how sometimes you don’t feel like talking to anyone or saying hi or even being effing polite? Me too.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of rudeness. If I’m cranky and running late and Uncle Vinnie’s outside sweeping the sidewalk, I have no choice but to stop, smile, give him a kiss on the cheek and chat for a few minutes.

2. Lack of privacy.

I’m healthy, single to put it tactfully? to get laid every once in awhile.

Bringing a guy home isn’t usually a problem—I can have friends over, after all—but the next morning is another story. There have been times when my “date” and I have had to stand quietly just inside my door, waiting for the coast to clear before sneaking him out.

That’s exciting when you’re 17, but rather humiliating when you’re a grown woman.

I know what you’re thinking: “You live in New York City! Stop caring what people think! You have the right to get laid whenever you want!”

Yes, yes and yes. But Aunt Margie and Uncle Vinnie are old-fashioned, and I love them. I don’t want to create an awkward moment in the home we share. Capisce?

3. No lease.

Turns out, the no-lease thing goes both ways. In 21 years, my rent has been raised twice—from $525 to $800, and then to $1100. Friends have informed me that those percentages may not be legal. Tough noogies for me. Friends have also informed me that my landlords are required by law to paint my apartment every three years. In 21 years, my apartment has been painted exactly once—by me. I even paid for the paint.

I assume that kitchen appliances are supposed to be updated eventually, too. Well, mine never have been. I have the same 1970s-era stove and oven I had when I moved in two decades ago. (The oven door literally has to be taped shut.) The floor throughout my apartment consists of brittle linoleum tiles from the 1950s. One wall in my kitchen has been crumbling due to water damage...since 2004. I’d ask Aunt Margie and Uncle Vinnie to fix all this, but I know their financial situation. They can’t afford a kitchen reno, and I can’t afford to help pay for it myself. I also can’t afford a rent increase, which would be a likely side effect of any upgrade.

If I had a proper lease and a formal relationship with my landlords, I could play hardball and threaten to sue or something if those things aren’t fixed. I probably still could. But I would never do that to Aunt Margie and Uncle Vinnie. For one thing, I’m grateful that they’ve kept my rent low for all these years. For another, I decided long ago that having landlords you love is worth a little sacrifice. Or even a lot.

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