Inside Stories

My NYC rental felt unsafe, but a squatter using the basement as a bathroom was the last straw

  • Lillian moved into a building riddled with problems, including flooding and a mystery basement defecator
  • The front door was frequently broken, the basement door didn’t lock, and break-ins were common
  • She broke her lease by notifying her landlord, who was legally required to try to replace her
Celia Young Headshot
By Celia Young  |
August 7, 2023 - 1:30PM
A row of Brooklyn apartment buildings.

Knowing New York's rent laws helped Lillian break her lease.


In her last year of law school, Lillian (a pseudonym) left student housing and moved into an apartment in Crown Heights with two friends. While she loved the neighborhood, the apartment was plagued with problems, some mundane, others baffling and disturbing. Here’s what pushed her over the edge and convinced her to leave.

I was living in New York for school and got pretty priced out of my old neighborhood. I found two other people looking to move to Crown Heights and we found an agent through a Facebook group and signed a lease. But four days before we were supposed to move in, we got a text from the broker. 

He said, “I'm so sorry. I've never had this happen before, but apparently the old tenant is refusing to move out and they can't rent you the apartment. But I'll help you find a new apartment.”

[Editor's Note: Brick Underground's Inside Stories features first-person accounts of dramatic, real-life NYC real estate experiences. Have a story to share? Drop us an email. We respect all requests for anonymity.]

A suspicious search

We first got in touch with the agent about a brand new building with a lot of amenities. We asked to view the apartment, and here was red flag number one: The agent said the current tenant was very cagey and concerned about covid, but he said he could show us a similar unit.

My roommate went to see it and we got in touch with someone that currently lived there, who said it was a really nice building. So we signed the lease and sent over all our deposits. Rent was $3,100 per month for the three bedroom.

We thought that everything was set, but I kept checking the tenant portal website, and no one had counter-signed the lease. I emailed the broker and the person for the building asking if this lease was going to be countersigned, when we could get the keys and if we could move in a week before our lease would start. They said yes to an early move-in, but never addressed the lease.

Four days before we were supposed to move in, we got the text from the broker. We freaked out. We couldn't make them rent us another apartment because they had never countersigned the lease. We had to find a place in four days because we had to leave our other apartments. 

The broker was holding onto our security deposit and the first month’s rent we previously paid, which felt pretty coercive. We looked at other apartments on Facebook and StreetEasy but the broker said it would be easier for him to rent us an apartment in a building he worked with, because then he could transfer the money that we already paid. We were so stressed out that we agreed.

He found an apartment that was very far from where our original place was going to be. It was more expensive (about $3,300) and a little bigger, but it was in an old building that was gut renovated, and it didn't have all the amenities of the other building. 

One thing we liked about the other apartment was that all the bedrooms had direct sunlight and this had nothing of the sort. Everything faced a brick wall. We took it because we couldn't find anything else.

99 problems and human feces is one

I can’t believe I lived there for 10 months. There were so many problems right away. It was newly renovated and a lot of stuff was clearly shoddy. All the apartments had individual hot water heaters and ours was broken. They had somehow failed to properly wire the building for WiFi. We signed up for an internet service provider and they said they couldn’t set up a router in the apartment. 

This building was not fit for people to live in yet. They hadn't set up mail boxes or garbage cans. We never got our ConEdison account set up properly because the landlord was still paying the electricity from when they had been renovating the building. We would see threatening bills come in and show up on the floor of the building’s stairway because there was no mailbox to put them in. 

Our basement door did not have a proper lock on it. People would break into the building all the time. There was a homeless man that regularly pooped in the basement in the winter.

We didn’t have a super half the time. In one really long rainstorm in April or May, one of the garden apartments flooded. The management did nothing. It was over the weekend and no one could reach them. There were people doing a tenant bucket brigade to get water out of this alley between our building and the building next door that was pouring into the windows. It was really unbelievable. 

There was another time when I saw people late at night in the alley between our building and the other with flashlights, shining a light into the windows on the ground floor.  And I thought  they were scouting it out to break in. I told the management company and I posted this in the tenant group chat. A week later, their apartment was broken into. 

Coping mechanisms 

Once we got those first few things sorted out, it was functional. We set up a 5G router from T-Mobile. (Eventually Verizon came and set up FIOS in the building about a month in, but we already had a router at that point). We had the hot water fixed. We got trash cans a week later and mailboxes a month later. I was happy in the neighborhood, but the apartment was completely not what I was looking for and it felt like a bait and switch.

We would always request fixes, and the problem would usually get resolved in a sort of timely manner. There was one point where our front door was not locking, which took a week to fix. And the front door of the whole building was very often broken. Sometimes it would be stuck and people couldn't get out. Sometimes it would lock and it would always take them about a week to resolve these things.

We had a group chat of the residents of the building and it was really helpful to have some tenant solidarity. There were a few times where we were planning to all withhold rent, but the problems got resolved before that happened. I think we could have organized tenants more effectively, but the months just flew by.

The great escape

I just wanted to finish up my final school year without the stress of moving again, but a lot of these problems got worse. The man started pooping in the basement later on in the year. So eventually I started looking into breaking the lease. 

My law school education was really helpful with this. There's a rule called the mitigation of damages, which means that if the tenant vacates the apartment and gives the landlord a reasonable notice, the landlord has a duty to find a new tenant to fill the apartment. They have to make an effort—a good faith effort—to find a new tenant.

I talked to a housing lawyer at Communities Resist as well. We told our landlord on May 1st that we wanted to move out in June. We didn't give any reasons. We said we understand that our lease is until the end of July. We're moving out May 31st. We'll return the keys. You can show the apartment for the next month while we're living there. 

The landlord initially said no, your lease ends July 1st. Then I sent back another email citing the relevant New York rent law and he said, “Okay, you can move.” 

Was it all an elaborate scam?

I do think the first rental was legitimate. But I think that the landlord and maybe the broker knew all along that the previous tenant was not going to leave, and they wanted to have someone lined up just in case. 

My mom thinks this was a plan to get us into the undesirable apartment. I think that’s too elaborate. Why show us an apartment in a building if they don't really want to give us an apartment?

The agent seemed like a nice guy and like I do believe that he felt bad and wanted to help us. I don't think that he was being really quick about finding a new place so that we wouldn’t ask for our money back. But sometimes I'm not sure.

Follow your gut

Hindsight is 20-20, but probably the moment I should’ve backed out was when they wouldn’t show us the apartment in the first building.

Looking back I regret not listening to my gut instinct. I should have taken a little bit more time to find something better and that I felt better about, and not tried to force something that raised red flags.

If someone won’t show you a unit, walk away. There's probably a reason. I think it's okay for landlords to post pictures of similar units. But if they won't show you the actual unit, I would take that as a red flag from now on. 

If you're in a place that’s bad, breaking your lease is easier than you think. Reach out to a nonprofit housing law office. Even if they can't take you as a client they still often offer advice. 

Also, talk to your neighbors. The new building that I've just moved into has a tenant association. A former tenant told us was that the tenants were unhappy with their management company and actually insisted that the landlord switch management companies. And they did. There’s strength in numbers. Know your neighbors, talk to them, and organize. It can be really powerful. 


Celia Young Headshot

Celia Young

Senior Writer

Celia Young is a senior writer at Brick Underground where she covers New York City residential real estate. She graduated from Brandeis University and previously covered local business at the Milwaukee Business Journal, entertainment at Madison Magazine, and commercial real estate at Commercial Observer. She currently resides in Brooklyn.

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