Am I Living In An Illegal Sublet

Temporary walls can impede escape routes in an emergency, and cannot be installed without approval and a permit from the city.

Q: I sublet my apartment from someone who, I believe, holds leases on a number of different apartments in and around Harlem, but doesn’t live in any of them. He sublets the units to different people, adding partition walls to bedrooms and living rooms to create additional bedrooms so he can rent more rooms. There are three of us in my apartment. The primary tenant collects our separate rent checks in person at the beginning of every month. The rent goes up at his whim and there is a constant turnover of tenants. Is this legal?

A: You are in a precarious situation with no easy solutions. The arrangement you’ve described is likely illegal, and may endanger your personal safety. Temporary walls can create fire hazards if they impede an escape route in an emergency, and cannot be installed without approval and a permit from the city.

“Once you put up partitions, you’re really putting people’s lives at risk,” if the walls do not meet city requirements, said Alan J. Goldberg, a Manhattan lawyer who represents tenants, who described the situation as a probable scam. “It’s a terrible, terrible situation.”

The person renting the apartment to you is likely violating the terms of his own lease, as well as city and state laws.

First, stop paying rent. The primary tenant cannot evict you or force you out of your home. “Nobody other than the court or a city agency has the power to tell you to leave,” Mr. Goldberg said. If he harasses you when he comes to collect the rent, ask him to leave. If he doesn’t leave, call the police.

Next, contact the person who owns the apartment. If you don’t have that information, you can find it on the Department for Housing Preservation and Development website. Explain the situation to the owner, as well as your concerns. “You don’t want to be paying rent to somebody who may not have forwarded it to the landlord,” Mr. Goldberg said.

You should also call 311 and explain that you’re concerned about fire and building safety. Request an inspection, but be aware that if an inspector finds dangerous living conditions, a vacate order could be issued.

It’s true that these steps could imperil your housing at a moment when rents are high. But the alternative — continuing to pay rent at a person’s whim in conditions that could endanger your safety — is not much better.

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