Can I Have Friends Over for Dinner?
In New York City apartments, behaviors that were once perfectly normal — a Friday night dinner party, taking the dog for a walk, or inviting a sibling to visit for a while — are suddenly deviant, and potentially dangerous, leaving property owners and building managers struggling to figure out when and how to keep tenants in line as they attempt to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
As landlords, co-op boards and property managers step up cleaning protocols and shut down gyms and roof decks, they’re also changing policies about everything from dog walkers to house guests. As some buildings consider taking the temperatures of workers who enter the property, others are wringing their hands about whether or not to send out a memo when a tenant gets sick.
Some properties have restricted large-package deliveries, even as delivery services have become a lifeline for the homebound, while others haven’t changed mail and delivery policies at all. Residents are finding themselves on the receiving end of a patchwork of restrictions that vary from one property to the next and may seem draconian, nonsensical or bafflingly lax.
“Some restrictions are difficult to just sort of jump into,” said Dan Wurtzel, the president of FirstService Residential New York, which manages 550 co-ops, condos and rental buildings in the city. “The first time you tell someone that every amenity in their building is closed, or they shouldn’t ride the elevator with another person, those are hard things to get used to.”
In one Lower Manhattan condo that FirstService manages, a resident with Covid-19 unexpectedly came down to the lobby and headed out for a walk while under quarantine orders. “That created a panic, obviously,” Mr. Wurtzel said. “The doorman sees the resident walking out to take a walk. They immediately contact us, what do we do?” The doorman alerted the city Health Department, and the city paid the resident a visit that day. “That was the last time he left the apartment.”
Buildings may be able to set rules, yet their powers may be limited, particularly since housing court is currently only hearing emergency cases. Co-op and condo boards have wide latitude to change house rules or bylaws, but landlords of rental properties have less muscle to flex. An overly zealous property manager runs the risk of interpreting the executive order in a way that could violate existing housing laws that are designed to protect tenants. If a tenant pushes back, management has to decide how far it can go to enforce new policies.
“The million dollar question is, what is the restriction?” said Eric Sherman, a Manhattan real estate lawyer. “Not allowing guests to come in and out? That’s pretty draconian. That’s the kind of thing that could be subject to challenge.”
In early April, Aida Murad figured the only thing she would need from the doorman when her 18-year-old brother arrived at her luxury rental building in Harlem to stay with her for a while was a parking permit. He had just driven into the city from Washington D.C., where he was a freshman at George Washington University, which had shut down the campus and shifted to distance learning. But when she walked down to the lobby, the doorman instead told her that he couldn’t come in at all.
Ms. Murad, 30, a self-employed entrepreneur, called the property manager and was told that if she insisted on bringing her brother into the building, she could face legal action because she would be violating a new policy prohibiting any visitors from entering the building at all. But her brother needed a place to stay and going to their parents’ home in Jordan was not possible because of travel restrictions. And Ms. Murad, who has a health condition that puts her at high risk for complications from the coronavirus, had hoped her brother could handle the shopping so she could stay indoors.
“To not let an 18-year-old boy into his sister’s home?” said Ms. Murad, describing her previous relationship with the management as a good one. “It was actually kind of shocking, but people act weird in times of fear.”
Rather than park his car in Harlem, Mr. Murad got back on the highway and drove to Boston to stay with another brother while Ms. Murad called a lawyer.
The state’s Multiple Dwelling Law allows tenants to have family members live with them, with no exceptions for viruses or emergency mandates. The executive order doesn’t specifically prohibit houseguests, but instead addresses social gatherings. “The building insisted there was some law in effect and there was not, there is only an executive order,” said John T. Maher, a Manhattan lawyer who represented Ms. Murad in the dispute.
But the building’s management was grappling with how to balance tenants’ rights with tenant and staff safety. The building had installed hand sanitizer on every floor, ordered staff to sanitize all packages before tenants could collect them, and two days before Mr. Murad arrived, deeply cleaned all the common areas. “We felt we were at our best condition,” said Gisele Kalonzo-Douglas, general counsel and director of business affairs for Pavilion Management, which owns and manages the property.
After some tenants complained that neighbors had been having multiple guests visit, management enacted a strict new policy barring all visitors, except essential ones, like home aides. “If there’s a stay-at-home order, your sister or mother shouldn’t be going out anyway to see you,” Ms. Kalonzo-Douglas said.
So when Ms. Kalonzo-Douglas received a call from Ms. Murad, she balked at the idea of allowing a person who had been traveling to enter the building, potentially putting staff and residents at risk. “I said, ‘Aida, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I really need to you to consider the breadth and scope of this.’”
After Ms. Murad hired a lawyer, the building backed down, granting her permission to let her brother stay with her. Mr. Murad drove back to his sister’s apartment two weeks after his first attempt to get in and finally moved in.
While some buildings may be overstepping boundaries, others seem hesitant to enforce the rules when tenants flout them.
Signs posted at the midtown rental building where Bill Strzempek, 61, lives remind tenants to keep a social distance, and most residents are hunkered down, sharing quarantine tips on a tenant Facebook group. Mr. Strzempek’s next door neighbor, however, is not.
The neighbor has been inviting guests over to his studio apartment regularly, with gatherings of up to five people lasting until 2 or 3 in the morning on weekends. The governor’s executive order prohibits “nonessential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason.” Violations of social distancing rules are subject to $1,000 fines.
Normally, Mr. Strzempek, an executive assistant for a law firm, wouldn’t be tracking (or even noticing) his neighbor’s social life. But these are not normal times, so he told the superintendent about the gatherings, particularly since his building has a large number of older residents. Instead of getting support, he got a shrug.
“He said he wasn’t sure what they could do about it,” said Mr. Strzempek, who hasn’t taken the issue any further, reluctant to punish a neighbor for behavior that until recently was harmless. “I’m disappointed that everybody isn’t as socially conscious in this situation,” he said. “It’s not like you can be ignorant at this point.”
For weekly email updates on residential real estate news, sign up here. Follow us on Twitter: @nytrealestate.