my two cents

‘My Building Is Offering Free Rent — But Not to Me!’

Photo: Marka/Touring Club Italiano/Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

My fiancé and I have been renting in the same building in New York for about five years now. When our lease was up last September, we were desperate to move someplace with more space that would allow us to work from home more comfortably. We wound up getting a slightly bigger (two-bedroom) apartment in the same building to save money on overall moving costs and avoid unnecessary COVID exposure. The management company didn’t offer us any sort of discount on our new place, even though we asked a few times — they just dragged their feet and didn’t get back to us. We signed a two-year lease with them anyway, and the space is great, but just thinking about it is infuriating now because the building is currently offering three months of free rent to new tenants.

Financially, we’re both lucky in that our jobs have remained intact during the pandemic. But we’re both in pretty substantial debt, so a break on rent would help a lot with that. I think we have a pretty good relationship with our management company, but they are also a big and relatively faceless corporation that has buildings all over the city and the country. Is there anything we could do or say to get them to offer a few months free to us, too?

Ugh, I am annoyed on your behalf. Nothing spoils my enjoyment of something quite like knowing I’m overpaying for it, so I empathize. I also know a lot of other renters in your shoes. Especially right now, with the economy’s sands shifting so quickly, it’s hard to know if you’re leaving money on the table until it’s too late.

That said, you may need to make peace with this situation. You’re under contract, and your management company doesn’t have any obligation to change it, especially since you’re locked in for two years. There may not be much you can do.

But there are plenty of things you can try, and the prospect of free rent is certainly worth the effort. To figure out your best options, I called Altagracia Pierre-Outerbridge, a lawyer who specializes in landlord-tenant conflicts. She recommends that you start by checking if your building is rent-stabilized. “A lot of tenants are not treated as rent-stabilized even when their apartment technically is,” she says. “I always tell people to make sure.”

You can do so by requesting the rent history of your unit from the Division of Housing and Community Renewal online. They’ll send you a record of what every tenant has paid for your unit in the past. If you see “RS” anywhere in the document, or you notice a major jump in rent price at some point, it’s worth reaching out to a tenant lawyer to figure out what the deal is, said Pierre-Outerbridge. (To find affordable legal help, the Met Council on Housing is a great place to start.) If your unit was improperly wrested from its rent-stabilized status, your landlord may be forced to lower your rent back to its stabilized rate and give you back-payment for the overcharges. “We have clients who found out that they had been overcharged for years, and their landlords owed them $70K or $80K,” says Pierre-Outerbridge.

Of course, if your unit is not rent-stabilized — which is more likely if your building is new — then you’re back to square one. But not all is lost; just adjust your expectations and proceed politely. “Play nice, and don’t make demands at first,” says Pierre-Outerbridge. Try saying something like, “I know that new tenants are receiving three months of free rent, and as loyal tenants, we were hoping that you might consider extending a similar offer to us.” If you’re pleasant and reasonable, the human who receives your emails will be more likely to respond in kind.

Pierre-Outerbridge suggests taking a slightly more aggressive route if the building has amenities that haven’t been accessible during the pandemic. For instance, if there’s a gym, a roof deck, a conference room, or any other bells and whistles that have been closed, you could request some kind of abatement. It probably isn’t equivalent to three months of rent, but it should be worth something. Choose an amount that seems sensible and signal that you’re willing to negotiate.

For what it’s worth, I tried a similar tactic to get my rent lowered about ten years ago, and it actually worked. (Long story, but the building where I lived started construction and became borderline uninhabitable.) I sent a letter to my landlord that outlined the “significant decline in safety and habitability” since I had signed my lease, and listed all the repairs that needed to be made. Then I proposed a 30 percent rent discount until those conditions were met. To my surprise, my landlord agreed to it, and signed my proposal. (I think he was tired and wanted to get me out of his office, but still — it saved me thousands of dollars.)

That’s just one instance, but it goes to show that deals can be made if you’re firm, persistent, and catch someone at the right time. Just make sure to get everything in writing. My landlord later tried to wriggle out of our agreement early, but I had the signed document and was able to hold him to it.

Another possibility — which recently worked for a friend of mine — is to extend your lease even further, by six months to a year (provided you’re willing to stay), with the condition that your landlord throws in a couple of free months of rent at the end. That’s an attractive deal to your management company because they’re probably hurting for business now, would welcome the security of a long-term renter, and would rather push any rent-free months to a later date (or year) when the rental market is hypothetically more stable and they’re less strapped for the cash.

Alternatively, your management company might just ignore you. “No response usually means no,” said Pierre-Outerbridge. I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, at least you’re happy with the space. (I hope you can keep paying down your debt even without a rent break.) And above all else, I’m glad you have a place to work safely and comfortably — that’s worth a ton, even if other people are paying less.

‘My Building Is Offering Free Rent — But Not to Me!’