The Helicopter Landlord Will Get Inside Your Head

Photo-Illustration: Bordered

Things started innocently enough: “Hi! Hope you are well,” my landlord texted one afternoon in July. “I noticed that the ladder is leaning on the fence. Would you like to ask it? It doesn’t seem smart to have it there. She ended things with a cheerful “Thank you!” My roommate and I had been in the apartment, a beautiful, poorly appointed two-bedroom apartment in a two-family building in Crown Heights, for a little over a month. At $2,800 it was the most we had ever spent, but it had a backyard with a lush garden and a brightly lit self-contained kitchen. The owner, a middle-aged artist, lived above us, but seemed friendly and easy to talk to when we found the place on the Listings Project.

Not wanting to start off on the wrong foot, I rushed home and moved the offending ladder. We had already said no to her request for 12 back-dated rent checks, which she described as “common practice”, and we didn’t want to come across as difficult tenants. Then she warned us when we started a fire in our backyard fire pit despite it being there before we moved in. When winter came, we noticed that she had removed the greeting card we had stuck on the door for the postman. A few weeks later, she insisted that we share the responsibility of clearing ice and snow from the front porch and sidewalk, as we lived in similar sized units. “It’s the responsibility of whoever lives in the house, not necessarily the owner,” she wrote to us, perhaps forgetting that she was both owner and landlord. lived in the house.

The resident owner is often presented as an asset — a real human connection in a sea of ​​corporate management companies and faceless owners. (“We love to create, travel, and learn from the world around us,” reads one listing of a family renting a two-bedroom apartment in their Brooklyn brownstone for $3,000.) And there’s a share of truth to that – they probably have more incentive to fix a broken boiler or not raise the rent if they have a good relationship with their tenant. (Our landlord acted quickly when we discovered bed bugs.)

Discarded from these picture-perfect neighborhoods: the owner of the helicopter. The one who constantly prowls on the fringes of your private life. One whose idiosyncrasies — a penchant for long chatter, an acute sensitivity to noise after 5 p.m., a habit of keeping a discreet count of your guests as they come and go — you have to put up with if you want to stay in your apartment. The helicopter rental company is someone who has no borders: you live next to them, but unlike a roommate or a neighbor, you are not the same. They have no obligation to renew your lease, giving them complete power over one of the most fundamental parts of your life. “You know how in Marie Antoinette’s day they paid an ornamental hermit to live on their property?” told me a friend who lives below their owner. “Sometimes I feel like an ornamental hermit living under my landlord’s stairs.”

Helicopter owners can take many forms, but they tend to share a lack of awareness of the power imbalance inherent in the relationship. Like my landlord who seemed hurt by our expectation that she might be responsible for sidewalk cleaning, one tenant, Maddie, told me about the time her landlord insisted on taking her to dinner with her roommate at Peter Luger’s after a pipe had burst in their apartment. (He wanted to “catch up” with them.) It seemed impossible to say no, Maddie said, so they awkwardly sat through the meal while he made vaguely homophobic comments. (“And I don’t like steak!” she added.) Another tenant had to figure out how best to ask her landlord to keep her huge dogs indoors rather than letting them roam in the building and terrify its visitors. You don’t want to drive them crazy; you don’t want to be kicked out either. As my roommate said, you often only live in the moments between uncomfortable interactions with the person who will ultimately decide your rent increases. (Anyone who still lived next door to their owner declined to be named, for obvious reasons.)

There’s something almost inevitable about the helicopter owner: home ownership – a way to build personal wealth – can probably make almost anyone feel like they have both the right and the obligation to control their more transient (and replaceable) tenants. (It’s not their money at stake!) One person told me about the owner of the helicopter who told them to remove a chair from their garden because it was not, according to them, made of the “correct chair material outdoors”. Another recounted the time they told their landlord ahead of time that they were going to invite about 20 people for a birthday party, but were told they couldn’t because “if you have so many people, the ground will collapse”. One tenant, who lives in a small building in Clinton Hill, said their landlords sat and watched them come in and out of the apartment from their front window; when they hosted family for a month, their landlords accused them of running an Airbnb.

But living with a helicopter owner is not just an inconvenience. Sometimes that means tenants end up taking over their duties or living in poor conditions to avoid offending them. Some tenants of owner-occupied buildings said they did most of the upkeep of their apartment themselves to avoid further interaction with their landlord, while others said they lived for months without heating but did not call 311 as it was harder to report someone they knew more. intimately – and they feared possible reprisals given that their owners lived right below them.

When I read some of the landlord restrictions I heard while reporting this article – visitor limits, veto power over outdoor furniture – Sam Himmelstein, a real estate attorney who represents tenants, said said that while there might not be a clear legal basis for everything if they’re not outlined in a lease, people can be stuck with them all the same. “On a practical level, if you want to live in this situation and you’re above your owner, sometimes you have to bite the bullet,” he said. They are also more than just inconvenient arrangements: tenants of small units at the market rate have very little protection compared to those of buildings with stabilized rents. Most of the time, it’s just not worth challenging your owner when he insists that your dog walk hard, especially since you’ll likely end up getting booted once your lease expires. “At the end of the day, if the landlord wants you out in a situation like that, you’re probably not going to stay there,” Himmelstein said.

After a year in our artist-owned apartment in Crown Heights, my roommate and I moved out. I ended up finding an affordable one-bedroom apartment in a large, rent-stabilized building run by an anonymous and notoriously bad management company. I knew a business owner was an infinitely worse player in the grand scheme of the rental market, but I was actually relieved day to day. I preferred the absolute clarity of the arrangement rather than constantly dealing with the psychology of one particular person who was acutely aware of everything I was doing and whom I could inadvertently upset at any time. But people put up with a lot just to stay in a decent apartment, especially in New York. The tenant who shares her hallways with a pair of huge dogs is always in the same place despite the inconveniences. So is the ornamental hermit. The renter who can’t have birthday parties isn’t going anywhere either. “It’s worth it,” they told me. “The apartment is so nice. »

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