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’Tis the Illegal Sublet Season – a Time for Extra Vigilance

Bill Morris in COVID-19 on November 19, 2020

Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan

Short-term sublets, illegal sublets, house rules. co-op board, COVID-19.

The co-op board at 433 W. 34th St. works hard to keep the building from becoming a seasonal hotel.

Nov. 19, 2020

For Barbara Eastman, the long-time president of her Hell’s Kitchen co-op board, the looming holiday season goes by another name: the illegal sublet season. That perennial fact of life has led the seven-member co-op to adopt and enforce strict rules on short-term sublets and visits by family members and friends.

“Strangely enough, there are still tourists coming into the city because they know the crowds are down,” says Eastman, who moved into the 107-unit building as a renter in 1977 and watched previous co-op boards try to crack down on illegal sublets after the conversion to a co-op in 1986. “Especially with COVID-19, we want to be very careful this year. If there’s going to be abuse, it usually happens around the holidays. And people who aren’t working might try to make a little money under the table.”

Eastman’s caution is born of long experience. After she joined the co-op board in 2007, she became aware that previous boards’ efforts to crack down on illegal short-term sublets had been less than completely successful. “We started to find out that people were regularly renting apartments short-term,” she says, “so we put it in the house rules around 2010 that you can’t do that. Naturally, people tried to get around the rules, so we had to tweak them over the years.”

The pre-war, 20-story Art Deco building, which is situated near three tourist magnets – Hudson Yards, the Port Authority and Penn Station – now requires that any shareholder who is planning to host guests must register the guests’ names, addresses and phone numbers on BuildingLink. The shareholder is required to be in residence in the apartment during the guests’ stay. If extenuating circumstances require the shareholder to leave town, he or she must notify the board.

“That one’s hard to enforce,” Eastman says, “but we have spies in the building who alert us when they see things happening on their floor. The bottom line is that shareholders know we’re watching.”

Shareholders also know that the rules will be enforced consistently and fairly. For example, Eastman, who works as a technology risk manager for a major bank, once had to go to California on business unexpectedly while relatives were staying in her apartment. “So I let the board know I’d be out of town for a few days,” she says. “Board members have to follow the rules like everybody else.”

People who flout the rules are aware that this co-op board is willing to resort to the nuclear option. “If we find they’re breaking the law, we threaten to terminate their proprietary lease,” Eastman says. “They always stop doing it – so we’ve never had to terminate a lease.”

Despite having sympathetic spies in the building and 24/7 doorman service, it’s not always easy to spot illegal guests. Sometimes a little guesswork is involved. “It’s hard to describe,” Eastman says, “but usually you can tell if someone’s an illegal tourist.”

And sometimes no guesswork is required. Eastman has stories. There was the French couple who announced that “relatives” were coming for a visit – shortly before a family from India, laden with luggage, settled into the couple’s vacated apartment. Another dead giveaway was the visitor who asked, “Does the front desk give wake-up calls?” And when another visitor was queried by the doorman, he replied, “I’m a cousin of…” – then pulled out a business card to refresh his memory of  his “cousin’s” name.

With the city schools closed again and a new state rule limiting gatherings to 10 people as COVID-19 surges anew, Eastman believes this illegal tourist season will require even more vigilance than those in years past. “I’m amazed by the number of people in Hudson Yards,” she says. “I see a lot of foreign tourists. Restaurants are crowded. There are still people who want to come to New York City.”

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