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Ask Sam: Is it legal to rent out individual rooms in an apartment?

If the building in question isn’t officially designated as an SRO or hotel, it is illegal.

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Question:

While apartment hunting, I came across a landlord who is renting out individual rooms within a unit. Is that legal?

Answer:

“It’s unlawful to occupy any class-A multiple dwelling as a rooming house,” says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants, tenant associations, and co-op shareholders. 

If the building in question isn’t officially designated as an SRO or hotel, it is illegal for landlords to rent individual rooms to tenants for a number of reasons, including that it could allow landlords to evade the maximum rent permitted by the Rent Stabilization Law and Code.

“Something landlords are doing now, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods that young people are moving to, is renting individual rooms,” Himmelstein says. “This sets up a de facto hotel, which is often used as a way to evade rent stabilization law.”

By renting individual rooms, landlords can end up collecting a total rent that exceeds the legal rent for the apartment, if it happens to be stabilized.

Doing this may also violate the city’s laws that govern Single Room Occupancy hotels. SROs are typically single rooms in buildings where facilities like bathrooms and kitchens are shared. If a building is not officially designated as an SRO, then landlords cannot rent individual bedrooms. 

Finally, these sorts of arrangements can present unlawful safety hazards.

“The really dangerous thing is if there are locks on the bedroom doors. That’s illegal because it’s a fire hazard, and could create a situation where tenants can’t get to the fire escape because it’s in that bedroom and the door is locked,” Himmelstein explains.

There are other legal requirements around fire safety, like having sprinklers and means of egress in the apartment, that may be violated if a landlord is renting out individual rooms rather than the apartment as a whole.

“These apartments are functioning like hotels, but don’t have the protections the law requires in SROs and other hotels,” Himmelstein explains.

Note that there is a distinction between a landlord who unlawfully rents out individual rooms, and roommate matching services that pair tenants together to share apartments. In the latter case, as long as all tenants are listed on the lease as renting the entire apartment together, rather than renting only their bedrooms, then the arrangement is legal.

“There’s nothing wrong with a company getting together roommates, approaching a landlord, and then having the landlord give those people a lease,” Himmelstein says. “If the lease is clear that each person has the right to occupy the entire apartment, then that’s okay—as long as there no locks on bedroom doors.”

However, be aware that you may end up not getting along with someone who you met through a matching service, as opposed to someone who you already knew. Also keep in mind that if any of your roommates decide to move out, you’ll be on the hook for their portion of the rent, until you can find a new tenant.  

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Read all our Ask a Renters Rights Lawyer columns here.


Sam Himmelstein, Esq. represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts, and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph in Manhattan. To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam at [email protected] or call (212) 349-3000.