As a New York City renter, it’s highly likely that at some point, you’ll end up sharing an apartment with a roommate or roommates. In a perfect world, you will all get along swimmingly, but, unfortunately, things can change and relationships can sour.
Maybe it’s because you’re past the party-every-night-until-dawn phase of your life and they’re not, or they’re not keeping up on their portion of the rent or the apartment’s upkeep, or maybe they’re just plain awful.
And now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, tensions are likely higher than usual. Millions of New Yorkers are spending almost all their time at home, sheltering in place to stop the spread of the virus, and all that togetherness has a way of escalating conflicts between roommates.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this post was published in April 2019. We are presenting it again with updated information for May 2020. Click here for more of Brick Underground's coronavirus coverage.]
Whatever the reason, you’ll know when it is time to cut ties, which could be a relief to both (or all) of you. However, given the current difficulty of moving and finding a new tenant—not to mention the health risks your roommate will face if they have to go apartment-hunting—there are additional ethical and logistical considerations that go into asking a roommate to leave.
“Real nightmare roommates do exist,” says Matt Hutchinson, director of roommate search site SpareRoom. But typically the reason is less dramatic. “For the most part, the other person is an OK person you just don’t happen to click with. The Covid pandemic has put extra pressure on roommate relationships, though, so it’s more important than ever to communicate and try and resolve things if you can, as moving simply might not be an option right now.”
There’s also the financial side to consider. If you’re the leaseholder and your roommate moves out, you’re liable for the rent; finding a new person to live with likely means conducting a virtual search and trusting that they’ve been practicing social distancing and won’t expose you to the virus. (If your roommate does end up getting exposed to the coronavirus, you’ll need to keep your distance and do some extensive cleaning.)
But if it has become clear that you and your roommate are not a good match, and you have no choice but to part ways (once you can safely do so), here’s how to avoid an uncomfortable and expensive scenario.
1. Have an honest, sober, face-to-face conversation
“The healthiest way is to just tell the truth,” says Rory Bolger, a broker with Compass. “Don’t make it personal. Just tell them that it seems clear that you’re not a healthy match and you think they should find another place.”
Dr. Lynn Saladino, a clinical psychologist who is a health and wellness consultant for Mirador Real Estate, says it’s key to make a thorough plan ahead of time for how you want to address your roommate issues.
"One of the things I see a lot with people is they wait to address things until they're considering moving out,” she says. “When that happens, their roommate might not see it coming and things are harder to repair."
And keep in mind that the Covid-19 pandemic may be intensifying any frustrations you and your roommate may be having with one another. These are extraordinary circumstances, and the general atmosphere of uncertainty about physical and economic well-being likely isn’t bringing out the best in anyone, so you and your roommate should try to cut each other some slack.
"If you and your roommate are struggling to get along during this pandemic, it's truly best to put your differences aside and do you best to get along,” says Sarah Beth Hill, founder of roommate-matching service Perfect Strangers of NYC. Try to keep to your own rooms and be as understanding as possible. If living with each other becomes completely unbearable, there are a lot of other housing options out there currently."
But remember that if your roommate does agree to go, it may not be easy to find a replacement—and then you’re on the hook for their rent.
“If they agree to move out, the question is how easy would it be to replace that person,” Bolger says. “Hypothetically you might need to lower the rent by a couple hundred dollars to make it more enticing for a new person to come in.”
Saladino also cautions that you should not assume that because you’re friends with your roommate, living together will be a breeze.
"Even with a friend you know well, it's a good idea to go over a list of lifestyle necessities and deal breakers before signing a lease,” she says. “There may be more to consider than you think since you likely know your friend in a different context."
Instead of waiting to address issues until you feel resentful, Saladino suggests having regularly scheduled “check-in” meetings with your roommate(s) to see how things are going, which could correct those issues early—and “set a precedent of communicating on things rather than pushing them down.” Plus, such chats could reduce any fear you may have about bringing problems up, “and ensures you’re catching each other at a time you’re both ready to listen,” she adds.
While some folks find it impossible to remain friends following such an ordeal, others do manage to find their way back to each other after the initial period of anger—but only if you don’t make the split personal.
“When you strip it down to the essentials, an apartment share is a financial transaction,” says Hutchinson. “Make it about ending the financial relationship rather than telling [them] you don’t like them.”
And remember, whether or not you and your roommate started off as friends or strangers, always treat them as you would want to be treated when broaching the topic of having them leave. “Have the courage to be firm about what you need, but treat the other person with respect, too,” says Hutchinson.
2. Figure out if you can evict them
If a conversation gets you nowhere, you'll have to up the ante. But whether you're going to be the one kicked out or do the kicking depends a lot on the terms of your lease. If they’re on the lease and you’re not, you’re out. If you’re both on the lease, you’ll need to tough it out since you’re both on the hook for the rent, unless you can officially negotiate your way out. (In extreme cases, such as a roommate who has been charged with a violent crime, you can get an Order of Protection and evict them, according to Law NY.) But what happens if you’re on the lease and they’re not?
First, keep in mind that there is currently a moratorium on evictions in New York state, which has been extended to August for tenants who are unable to pay rent due to Covid-19 or qualify for unemployment. And according to the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenant advocacy organization, you can’t simply kick out a roommate if they have lived in the apartment for at least 30 days or paid you rent. Instead, you’ll have to go to the city’s housing courts to begin legal eviction proceedings—but those courts are currently closed except for emergencies, so you’ll have to wait to resort to that option.
If you have a written agreement that states that your roommate will room with you for a year, you can’t force them out unless they’ve breached that contract somehow—either by not paying rent or by violating the building’s rules. So if they’re a model citizen, but you’ve met someone you just like better, you’re stuck with them for the rest of the year.
On the other hand, per the Met Council, in the absence of a written agreement, a roommate who is not on the lease is considered month-to-month, and you can legally ask them to leave as long as you provide a 30-day notice.
That’s why Kelly Ringston, a real estate attorney with Braverman Greenspun, typically recommends a one- to three-month trial period until you’ve determined how well you live together as roommates.
“If you have a month-to-month roommate, you can terminate their tenancy at the end of any rental cycle, upon proper notice, for whatever reason—i.e., 'you’re weird, please leave,’” she says. “If there is a written roommate agreement, the term is usually for a longer period of time—six months, or a year."
If they have violated the agreement or there is no written agreement, you can kick them out—but again, ethically speaking, you should wait until the coronavirus crisis abates and it’s safe for them to move. (While actual written roommate agreements are rare, Ringston always recommends them in light of how quickly some of these situations go south. “It’s better for all parties to have an agreement in writing,” she says, so that everyone is aware of the rules and expectations from the get-go.)
“Essentially, you’re their landlord,” Ringston says. The first thing you’ll need to do is serve a notice of termination notifying them that you’re ending their tenancy. If you can’t afford the services of a lawyer to draft one for you, you can do it yourself on the New York City Housing Court website.
An uninvolved party must be the one to serve the notice—so you can’t be the one to do it even though you live with your roommate and could easily hand it over. “The cleanest way to do it is to hire a process server,” Ringston says. Pricing usually depends on how many times they need to return to serve the notice, but it’s usually a few hundred dollars. You can find one here.
You need to give your soon-to-be ousted roommate one full rental cycle to get themselves and their stuff out, meaning that if they’re renting week to week, you give them at least a week’s notice. If they’re renting month-to-month, a month’s notice, and so on.
If you've got the money to stay in a hotel or friends or family to crash with, you could actually leave the apartment until your roommate is out to avoid face-to-face interactions. Failing that, the only course of action is to co-exist uncomfortably until one leaves.
After this sure-to-be-awkward week or month is done, if they’re still not out, it’s extremely important that you not accept any more rent money from them, Ringston says.
“If I’ve said that your tenancy ends on a certain date and then I accept next month’s rent, I’m effectively extending your tenancy,” she says. “Getting an eviction can take time, and since you can’t collect rent, which you probably need to afford the apartment, you can end up in a very difficult situation.”
3. Give them a financial incentive
If you can, offer to help finance their next move, pay their first month’s rent in a new place or to give back their security deposit early, suggests Ringston. “It’s not easy for someone who just moved to fund a second move, so if you can ease the financial burden, you might help expedite the process,” she says.
If your issue with your roommate is that they can’t pay rent—especially in light of mass layoffs resulting from Covid-19—you could create a buffer by using their security deposit as rent payment.
“This would be a time you could use the security deposit, if it’s a financial but not a personal issue,” Bolger says. “And if you’re having a personal dispute, you still have that security deposit while you’re trying to navigate that person out of the apartment.”
4. Don't change the locks (yet)
Saladino notes that there is a wide range of potential responses to being kicked out; where some might just be angry, other roommates could become dangerous. “You have to keep yourself and your things as safe as possible,” she says.
She recommends telling a roommate who seems particularly upset, “Let’s just take time to cool off and let me know when you're ready to talk.”
If things become so contentious that you’re afraid that your belongings will be trashed, get a lock on your bedroom door, Ringston advises, but don't lock your roommate out of the apartment. Housing court judges won’t take kindly to it.
“You’ll be subject to criminal and civil penalties,” she says. “You’re subject to criminal fines up to $10,000, civil penalties up to $100 a day, and treble damages, meaning liability for three times the tenant’s actual damages, and yup, you could even end up in jail.”
Anyway, “if it’s really that bad that you need to lock up your stuff, maybe you should just be the one to up and leave,” says Hill of Perfect Strangers. Of course, that’s easier said than done—especially if you’re the leaseholder.
If things get so bad that you fear your roommate will become violent, get the police involved immediately and try to get a restraining order against them, says Ringston. Only then are you permitted to lock out your menacing roommate.
5. If all else fails, take them to court
If your roommate doesn’t leave of his or her own volition after the termination date is up, you can take them to housing court—once it reopens for non-emergency cases.
The first step in housing court is to file a holdover petition, "a type of legal action commenced when a tenant, or in this case a roommate, has overstayed the term of their tenancy,” says Ringston. “If the tenant/roommate does not vacate the apartment by the date set forth in the first notice, he/she is ‘holding over.' If you win your case, you get a judgment of possession, meaning you have the right to the apartment, and a warrant of eviction, which means that the other person has to get out.”
While hiring an attorney would certainly make things easier for you, Ringston says that it’s absolutely not necessary. “Having a lawyer is always a good idea, but landlord-tenant court is made to be accessible to pro se litigants, so it can be navigated without one,” she says, before adding that it’s impossible to say how much the services of a lawyer might cost you since it depends on many variables, including lawyer rates and the complexity of the case.
“The majority of the time, you get together with the court to agree on a date that [your roommate has] to leave by,” says Ringston. And usually they will leave once a judge has issued an eviction order. “It’s not often that you have to have someone physically removed,” she says. “If you don’t have a legal right to be there, most rational people will understand that it’s the end of the road.”
Housing court can be time-consuming and stressful for all parties, so try not to let things get that bad, SpareRoom’s Hutchinson urges. “The biggest weapon you have when it comes to roommate dealings is communication,” he says. “Keep talking throughout living together. Don’t just wait till you’re so angry you can’t even look at each other.”
And as uncomfortable as it can be to ask your roommate to move out, it’s a conversation you shouldn’t put off for long.
“Your living environment means everything—it’s really crucial to your health,” Saladino says. “If it’s a really bad situation, you have to get out of it. Sometimes you have to put yourself first.”
—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Leah Hochbaum Rosner and Nikki M. Mascali