Q: My husband and I rent a market-rate apartment in Brooklyn, with a lease that expires in November. I’m seven months pregnant and terrified of delivering in the city during the coronavirus pandemic. We want to break our lease and stay with my parents upstate since we’re both working remotely anyway. But our landlord says unless we can find someone to take over the lease, he won’t let us out of it. What can we do?
A: Many New Yorkers are trying to get out of their rental leases right now, for financial or health reasons.
“I am getting calls everyday about this. It is the number one call,” said Samuel J. Himmelstein, a Manhattan lawyer who represents tenants. ‘I want to break my lease — what can happen to me?’ ”
If you decide to break your lease, your landlord is required to make a good-faith effort to re-rent the apartment. But you are responsible for the balance of the lease until a new tenant moves in. In a normal housing market, finding a replacement renter wouldn’t be too difficult. But these are not normal times. The rental market is freezing up. StreetEasy listings for available rentals fell by 54 percent from March 16 to March 27, and despite the lack of inventory, landlords are offering incentives like a few months’ free rent for the units that are available. “Supply and demand have both fallen, which is expected at a time like this,” said Nancy Wu, a StreetEasy economist.
Even subletting options are scarce. On the sublet site Flip, inquiries from renters looking to take over leases have dipped significantly, while the number of people looking to list their apartments nearly doubled from February to March, according to Susannah Vila, the site’s chief executive. Flip is cautioning tenants that they shouldn’t expect to move until the state’s sheltering restrictions are lifted.
But of course, you may have no choice. Call your landlord and try to work out a deal. Perhaps you could forfeit your security deposit and, if you can afford it, a month or two of rent. If he won’t compromise, you may have to take your chances and break the lease. The landlord may sue you for the balance of the lease when the courts reopen. At that point, you would likely negotiate a settlement, where you pay a portion of the total you owe.
“It’s a collection case at that point and most collection cases settle,” Mr. Himmelstein said. “Almost all creditors in those situations will not insist on 100 cents on the dollar.”
Since civil judgments do not appear on credit reports, a ruling against you would not impact your credit. And since the case would be heard in civil court, not housing court, your name would not appear on a tenant blacklist.