My son is almost 5 years old and my daughter is almost 2, and every night after their bath, they run the length of our railroad apartment wearing nothing but their hooded towels, pretending to be ghosts. They start in the kitchen, by the wall where we tape up their latest drawings, then they sprint through the couch-cramped living room, through the little bedroom that they share, all the way to the queen bed in the bigger bedroom, then back through to the kitchen again, repeating until they’re exhausted, yelling out “boo!” whenever they can stop giggling and also sometimes roaring like dinosaurs, filling our home with laughter and footfall.
If I am cleaning the kitchen or putting away their bath toys when they start, they demand that I sit in the recliner in the living room and whistle, because my oblivious whistling makes it funnier when I howl out in terror at the naked little ghosts haunting my apartment. If I am writhing on the floor in pain, they tell me to “open the Dada Tunnel,” so they can crawl underneath me.
Physical discomfort is nothing new for me – I have M.S. and Crohn’s disease, and I’ve endured all the breaks and tears that come with a life spent playing sports a little too recklessly – but nothing I dealt with in the first 39 years of my life prepared me for what I’ve suffered over the past two. It’s gastrointestinal, but not all of my way-too-many doctors are sure it’s connected to the Crohn’s. I can’t eat full meals, I can’t eat vegetables, and many days I feel like I can’t eat at all. Between the middle of August of 2020 and Thanksgiving of that same year, I lost about 45 pounds. I’ve been hospitalized twice in the past five months.
It blows, and it’s hard on my kids. They feel it when I’m hurting too much to chase them around at the playground, and they definitely feel it when I’m in the hospital. They show it in different ways, but they both show it, and no matter how often I remind myself that my kids are extremely fortunate for a variety of reasons, it’s an awful and helpless feeling to know that my own stupid body is complicating their lives.
Much of the time the pain is bearable, and I don’t think I’m bound for the Big Sleep anytime soon. But earlier this month, for one very bleak night of the most recent hospitalization, I genuinely thought I was dying, and I kept picturing my grieving wife telling my sweet kids that Dada wasn’t coming home, and the guilt was overwhelming.
I know that’s not rational. I know it’s not my fault I’m sick. But it’s my family, and when my body fails me, I can’t help but feel like I am failing them.
And the next morning, while I was still in the hospital, with my parents in from Long Island to cover my childcare duties, my new landlord came by to do asbestos testing. He helped my mom carry our stroller up our front steps and charmed her by telling her he has two small children of his own. Then he casually mentioned to her that we were the family with two young kids that was “out of here in June,” or something along those lines – the first time we got any indication from the management company that we would not be welcome to stay in our apartment.
My wife and I moved to this quiet block in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan in 2011. Our landlord then was a nice older woman who lived across the street and still washed the windows herself. Eventually her children took over for her, but our rent never went up, and the building was well-kept, and we knew we had it good.
We welcomed our son in 2017, then our daughter in 2020, and now this place is their home, inside and out: It’s perpetually littered with their toys and pajamas and discarded wet-wipes, and they like baking cookies for our neighbors upstairs and high-fiving the doormen at the luxury building down the street, and they know that the barber around the corner always has lollipops, and my son is registered to start Kindergarten in September at an elementary school a few blocks away.
But late last year we got notice that the nice family of our nice landlady sold the building and the buildings on either side of it to some faceless, ungoogleable LLC, to be managed by a big midtown company that boasts over 100 buildings in its portfolio. We learned the name of our new landlord, and I learned from the management company’s website that he’s the son of the company president, who himself inherited the company from his father-in-law, who inherited the company from his father. This information is presented as though it should endear me to the company.
It turns out that when the landlord said we were out of here in June, he had us mixed up with another family with two young kids that he is forcing out of the building next door. But two weeks ago, we got notice that we need to vacate our home by the end of August.
It’s three months’ notice, and three months’ notice is all that’s legally required to give someone the boot from an unregulated rental unit. And maybe three months sounds like plenty of time to find a new place, but rents are skyrocketing right now. And maybe you’re thinking, “well, if you can’t afford it, then live somewhere else,” but until now we always could and did afford it, and when you live someplace for 11 years and start a family there, the entire calculus of your life becomes tied to your location.
My wife works absurd hours, and a longer commute would mean more time away from our children. I split childcare duties with a nanny that has become part of our family, and we need to be somewhere she can access by subway. My entire army of doctors is stationed in upper Manhattan. And though I feel OK right now, we need to be somewhere my parents and in-laws can reach without too much trouble to take care of our kids in emergencies. Plus, we like it here. This is our home.
So I called the management company to explain all that and to ask for some more time. Someone, not the landlord, called me back the next day to take part in one of the most existentially frustrating conversations I’ve ever had – and I write that as someone who spends a whole lot of time trying to get health-insurance claims settled.
I told her I was sick, that I’d been in the hospital the week before, that I didn’t know when I might land in the hospital again, and that all my doctors are near here. I told her my wife is herself a doctor and already has her work schedule for the next year, and that it does not include time off to find a new place and pack up all our things. I told her we have two small children.
She told me that a lot of their tenants in “this situation” also had complications, and that she was just following the owner’s orders. She said they already had permits to start gutting the building in September, and that if we’re not out by then, there’ll be lots of dust and noise in the hallways. I told her I know there are multiple rent-stabilized units in the building, two of which have nonagenarian tenants that do not intend to move and are protected against eviction. She told me she didn’t know what would happen with those tenants, but that she thought they might find them places in one of their many other buildings.
When I asked if she could offer us a comparable apartment, even for more money, in one of those many buildings, she said that they had very few vacancies right now because – she actually said this – “people are so afraid of what’s happening with rents in the city,” as though it were an alien invasion and not something she was actively working to perpetrate.
There’s one line of the two-page notice-to-vacate that doesn’t read like dense legalese: “Unfortunately the landlord does not intend to renew the lease to the apartment due to necessary repairs.” I asked the woman from the company what they meant by “necessary repairs,” since I’ve been living in the apartment for a long time and nothing about it seems to necessitate repairs. She couldn’t say exactly what repairs they’d be doing but assured me we were safe to keep on living there until the date provided. Then I got mad and asked if by “necessary” they meant to say “profitable.” She repeated that she was just following the owner’s orders.
We’re going to be OK. If we can’t figure out a way to stay in our place, we’ll find another, and while we’ll sting from the stress and the cost and the sadness, we are lucky in too many ways to list. We’re not about to be forced into a shelter or onto the streets.
The same can’t be said for tens of thousands of others in New York State facing “necessary repairs” or exorbitant rate hikes, and as I write this, there are lawmakers fighting to pass “Good Cause Eviction” legislation aimed to protect responsible renters from predatory landlords. Polls suggest a strong majority of New York voters support the legislation, and a handful of other cities in the state already have similar laws in place.
But despite the best efforts of those lawmakers, the bill appears unlikely to get passed before the legislative session ends later this week. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that people who own lots of buildings carry way more clout with elected politicians than landless renters like me and my family.
That’s why I’m writing this: To urgently beat the drum for political change, or at least to desperately shout into the abyss about political injustice. I feel confident I’d be in favor of such legislation even if it didn’t so directly affect my family, but there’s obvious self-interest here. I can’t say I would be writing about this or following it so closely if it was on the table last year at this time. I never would’ve guessed it might happen to me.
So if you’re among the millions of New Yorkers who make their homes in unregulated apartments, consider this a warning: This can happen to you, too. In New York City, 89% of housing units have corporate owners, and when the nice old lady you’ve been renting from for a decade decides it’s time to cash out, the highest bidder is never going to be another nice old lady.
I can’t promise my kids they’ll be haunting the same home come September, just like I can’t promise them I’ll stay out of the hospital. But since I am already too often saddled with the feeling that I’m letting them down, I need them to know, sometime in the future when they’re old enough to understand, that I didn’t just roll over and uproot our lives so some rich guy could have more money. I want to fight for my family, and the only sad weapons in my arsenal are a modest Twitter following and a dormant blog. I realize this is not nearly enough, but it’s the only thing I know how to do.