Strategies to survive a rental to condo conversion (or at least walk away with a big buyout)

By Virginia K. Smith | March 20, 2015 - 12:59PM

Construction noise is an inevitable part of life in New York, but usually, the jackhammer din and sawdust clouds disappear once you get inside your building. Not so, if you're living in a building in the midst of a conversion.

With the market for super-sized condos booming, developers have been re-modeling pre-existing rentals into larger, lavish units, and converting them to condos, netting profits without the expense or hassle of putting up a new building from scratch. These conversions have been happening at a relatively steady pace since before the recession; in 2007, there were 20 such conversions, in 2013 there were 14, and 15 were planned for 2014, the New York Times reports. It's a sweet deal for developers, but not necessarily so much for the tenants who are staying put.

Rent-stabilized and rent-controlled tenants in buildings that are being converted often hang onto their cheap(ish) apartments for dear life—rightly so—but in the process, face a series of quality-of-life problems including heat and hot water cutting in and out, spotty elevator service, rodents, dust and debris, and of course, constant noise. The recently-formed Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force has even cited "disruptive and dangerous renovation and construction projects" as a common form of tenant harassment. 

Unlike the conversions of the '80s—when tenants used to get first dibs on insider offers to buy new units for as low as 50 percent of the market rate price—discounts now are minimal. One Upper East Side building undergoing a conversion offered tenants a discount of 10 percent, per the Times.

So what's a renter to do? For starters, band together with the other holdouts in your building and take your grievances to the landlord as a group. Send in complaints in writing, and if things get really bad, you can file an HP action (more on this here). "An individual isn't going to get the landlord to change their building policy, but 40 people well might," tenants' rights lawyer Sam Himmelstein, has told us. If the ongoing work constitutes a violation of the Warrant of Habitability—e.g. your right to a livable environment—the landlord should compensate you with a rent abatement, or a temporary spot in another building owned by the same management company.

And if your management company is offering buyouts, don't accept less than your apartment is really worth. (One renter interviewed by the paper wisely declined buyouts of both $250,000 and $1 million for her spot in a building where units now sell for anywhere between $14 million and $22 million). As we've written previously, the more your apartment will be worth on the open market, the higher your buyout should be. The negotiating process—much like the renovation process—will likely be an unpleasant slog, but may as well make it worth your while.


Ask Sam: My landlord's renovation is making my life miserable. What are my rights? (sponsored)

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