Best of Brick

What happens if your lease is up during the coronavirus pandemic?

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By Emily Myers  |
December 24, 2020 - 10:30AM

Because of the pandemic, you may need to extend your lease or even break it early. 


Now more than ever, renewing a lease on a New York City apartment is a fraught decision. Maybe you toughed it out during the shutdown, but don't know if you want to commit to another year. How do you get some flexibility while you plan your next step? Or maybe it's not up just yet but it will be soon, and you're ready to move—like yesterday.

The rental market has shifted considerably in the months since NYC was the epicenter. The vacancy rate is ticking up, rents are falling, and as a result, landlords who have tenants want to keep them, rather than spend time (and money) on enticing a new tenant with concessions. They're more likely to work with you to encourage you to stay. Some may even lower the rent.

That puts you, the renter, in the driver's seat. Here are some options if your lease is up now—or you want to walk away.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this post was published in September 2020. We are presenting it again here as part of our holiday Best of Brick week.]

Month-to-month rental arrangements

One option to consider if you're planning a move in the short-term: Ask for your lease to go month-to-month while you work out what happens next. Adam Frisch, managing principal at Lee & Associates Residential NYC, a real estate company representing small building owners in Manhattan, says you may have a good chance of making this happen.

While laws passed last year that capped the security deposit to one month's rent prompted his firm to put an end to month-to-month arrangements, Frisch says landlords are likely to show some flexibility now. "It would behoove landlords to at least consider month to month for at least one month after expiration, just as a courtesy because there may be some difficult times ahead," he says. 

Pro Tip:

Do you need help renegotiating your lease, getting your lease renewed at a rent you can afford, or terminating your lease early? The experienced tenants-rights attorneys at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph can advocate on your behalf. Call 212-349-3000 or email to schedule a consultation.

Elizabeth Stone, managing agent at Stone Realty Management, has a relatively low turn-over rate in her building but says she will be flexible and "go to month to month, as best we can, to accommodate the tenants."

Just be aware that month-to-month tenants have fewer protections. 

Landlords can still raise the rent on month-to-month leases. You don't have to agree to the increase, but the landlord can end the lease if you don't. Regardless, your landlord must give you 30 days notice if he or she wants you out.

Breaking a lease early

Another option is to approach your landlord about breaking your lease. 

Stone says she has been willing to allow some of her tenants to break their leases a couple of months early as a result of the pandemic. "They were planning to leave the city in the next few months and have now found that it would be better to leave immediately."

Frisch tells Brick Underground he's getting requests for about 10 lease breaks a day.

He says owners are sometimes willing to permit this, usually with some kind of penalty, like forfeiting the security deposit, which is permissible in New York for renters facing Covid-hardships.

"Most landlords understand. If tenants honestly can't pay, they will let them off," he says. He says it's more economical to let them go rather than track down tenants and take them to court. They are inclined to write off the loss, fix up the apartment, and get it on the market again quickly, he says.

"Landlords are more amenable to lease breaks, not out of the goodness of their heart, but because it makes business sense," Frisch says. They will be able to find a new tenant in a short period, he says, even in the current economy, by offering some kind of concession and deal on the rent.

He asserts that most landlords are not at all like the greedy stereotype. Many are open to lowering the rent to get "good people in who won't sue." 

And he says the majority are small landlords who have seen many things and recognize tough situations.

"Covid did not create the trends," Frisch says. "It exacerbated them."


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Emily Myers

Senior Writer/Podcast Producer

Emily Myers is a real estate writer and podcast host. As the former host of the Brick Underground podcast, she earned four silver awards from the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Emily studied journalism at the University of the Arts, London, earned an MA Honors degree in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh and lived for a decade in California.


Jennifer White Karp

Managing Editor

Jennifer steers Brick Underground’s editorial coverage of New York City residential real estate and writes articles on market trends and strategies for buyers, sellers, and renters. Jennifer’s 15-year career in New York City real estate journalism includes stints as a writer and editor at The Real Deal and its spinoff publication, Luxury Listings NYC.

Brick Underground articles occasionally include the expertise of, or information about, advertising partners when relevant to the story. We will never promote an advertiser's product without making the relationship clear to our readers.