The Search

Been offered a lease for a single room in a shared apartment? Yep, it's too good to be true

By Virginia K. Smith  | February 16, 2017 - 11:59AM

For many young roommates, one of the rudest awakenings of apartment living comes with the realization that when you sign onto a lease, you're signing on to be legally responsible for the entire apartment—not just your individual share. But what if you could sign onto a lease that just renders you responsible for your individual room?

The concept of roommate-matching has been a fairly common (if risky) practice in the world of lower-priced rental listings for a while now with varying degrees of legitimacy. Brooklyn-based brokerage Nooklyn, for instance, has an entire section of their site devoted to roommate-matching. At its most straightforward, the concept is that instead of roommates finding each other through Craigslist or mutual friends, the broker is the one finding people, and setting them all up together in a shared apartment.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, Gothamist reported last fall on a Brooklyn "slumlord" who would bait-and-switch tenants into shared apartments with strangers, keeping the building in ill repair and moving strangers in and out of the apartment with no notice to the rest of the residents. The practice of roommate matching is legal, so long as the broker is upfront about the setup, and everyone signs onto the same, standard lease.

More recently, though, we've been hearing about a variation on this trend: Multiple Brick staffers have friends who have been matched with roommates in rentals, but with each person getting an individual lease that covered their own room. At first glance, this might seem ideal: signing on to guarantee the cost of just your room minimizes the risk inherent in a roommate situation, an especially appealing prospect if those roommates are strangers. After all, agreeing to cover the cost of an entire apartment's rent—on the assumption that none of your roommates will default on their end of the bargain—is a significant financial gamble, even among longtime friends. 

But investigating more closely, the situation starts to look murky. No rental listings that we've found explicitly advertise individual leases, and while most brokers tell us they've heard of the practice but wouldn't set up such a deal themselves, the brokerages that do specialize in these types of leases never responded to any of our requests for comment. None of which exactly paints a picture of legitimacy.

One Brooklyn agent did tell us: "Our company has agents who have done deals like that, and there are a couple of companies around town that do buildings that are specifically this kind of setup. The short answer is that if the landlord will do it, we'll set it up—though it's definitely in the minority of what we do."

The agent continued, "I would never send someone into a situation I thought was illegal. And if I were advising a client, I'd probably warn them against this, and tell them to make sure to vet their prospective roommates, anyway."

Turns out, there's a good reason for all the secrecy: Leases for individual rooms are a violation of city SRO (Single Room Occupancy Laws), which stipulate that landlords can't rent out single roommates in a shared apartment. (The landlords engaging in this practice are likely willing to roll the dice, legally, if it means they can charge higher rents for each individual room, making more money from the apartment in total than they would if they rented it on a single lease.) 

"If you have a four-bedroom apartment, it's fine to rent it out to a tenant and say you can have three roommates. But you can't have direct leases with four different tenants," says renter's rights attorney Sam Himmelstein (FYI, a Brick sponsor). "The legislation sees that as an illegal SRO hotel. In effect, you're creating a Single Room Occupancy situation where the tenants share a bathroom and a kitchen and each one has a relationship with the landlord."  

And while we've heard of these situations working out fine, it could just as easily go the other way. "Your lease could be potentially illegal and void. Plus, this allows your landlord to pick your roommates in the future, and move in whoever they want without you having a say," says Himmelstein. "And if the Department of Buildings catches wind of this, and your landlord gets hit with a violation, in order to cure the issue, they may have to clear everybody out."

The bottom line? "I personally wouldn't enter into an agreement like this," he adds. "If the landlord is doing this, who knows what else they're doing that's illegal."

"The thing I usually tell clients is that anything can happen, so if you even remotely suspect you're moving in with the kind of person who wouldn't pay the rent or would become a squatter after you leave, don't do it, even if you have separate leases" says Noble Novitzki, head of agent development for Nooklyn. "My honest suspicion is that even in the worst case scenario, you might end up on the hook [for their portion of the rent] anyway. The real best advice here is to move in with the right people."



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