Q: I live in an Upper East Side apartment with a rent-stabilized lease, which requires me to live there at least 183 days a year. I have been away since the start of the pandemic. What happens if I stay away for more than half the year? And how do I maintain it in the meantime?
A: Although rent-stabilization rules require tenants to use their apartments as a primary residence, your landlord doesn’t have much incentive to enforce the rule if you’re paying your rent. Changes made to state rent laws in 2019 ended vacancy deregulation in most cases, so if your landlord were to evict you, the next tenant would probably have a rent-stabilized lease anyway.
Regardless, the courts have long held that tenants can stay away from their apartments for extended periods because of health reasons. In this case, fear of contracting a deadly virus would likely suffice.
But you still need to maintain the apartment as your residence. So don’t change your address on any of your bills, voter registration or taxes. Instead, forward the mail. Once the pandemic ends, you will need to return. “If your sole reason for being away is your health, you have to go back within a reasonable amount of time,” said Samuel J. Himmelstein, a Manhattan lawyer who represents tenants.
In the meantime, don’t neglect your apartment entirely. Ask a friend, neighbor or a member of the building staff to check in on it monthly. They should look for evidence of leaks from your apartment or a neighboring one, run the faucets and flush the toilets. “Plumbing is an issue and that’s year round and for any extended absence,” said Melissa Cafiero, director of compliance at Halstead Management.
Don’t run window or through-the-wall air-conditioning units during extended absences. They could leak, causing serious damage. Instead, keep the curtains drawn.
Someone should also check your mailbox periodically, as you may still receive fliers and brochures, which can pile up. “It’s amazing how much mail gets through” despite forwarding requests, said Sharon Fahy, an associate broker with Halstead, which is now part of Brown Harris Stevens, and the president of the board of her Upper East Side co-op. About half of the residents in her building are still away, and the board recommends that they contact the resident manager and leave a contact number in case of emergency. Remember to tip any staff member who regularly checks your apartment for you.