Finally! After years of scraping by in cramped apartments in sketchy neighborhoods, you’ve made it—into a luxury rental with a doorman, concierge service, gym, bike room, and other posh amenities. It seems perfect.
Then you meet your neighbors, sunning themselves on the roof deck. Topless.
Sound like the opening to a Skinemax flick? On the contrary, it’s a reality for residents at The Azure, a new high-end apartment building in Brooklyn, NY.
“There were girls sunbathing topless up there,” one tenant with a child told the New York Post. “My wife was, like, ‘WTF?!’ There are a lot of families [here].”
You see, The Azure was facing significant vacancies, so the management company decided to rent out 30% of its units to King’s College, a liberal arts school in lower Manhattan. The result? Families who paid top dollar to live in a building with a business center, cold storage space for grocery deliveries, and other luxe features suddenly found themselves in what felt like a college dorm. A “dormdominium”! And you know what that probably means: late-night parties with eau de weed wafting through the halls and, um, some awkward bump-ins during rooftop barbecues with bikini-clad (or unclad) residents. And noise. Lots of noise.
“We bought into the luxury experience of the nice rooftop,” another tenant lamented. “We didn’t expect it to be packed with 18-year-olds.”
When luxury apartments turn into dorms: Why it happens
This rude awakening for well-heeled renters isn’t as unusual as you might think. It’s just what many luxury developers may find themselves doing now that the high-end rental market is softening, leaving empty apartments that must be filled to make ends meet.
“Building owners stuck with vacant properties will try to rent them to whoever they can within reason,” says Aaron Shmulewitz, a real estate attorney with Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman in New York City. “When the economy goes bad, building owners have to scramble.”
Part of the problem is that a few years ago, the housing market was going so strong, developers got bullish on building—only to find themselves in a more sluggish market once their structures were complete.
“Opening a residential building is a many, many-year process,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “You have to acquire the site, you have to get financing, perhaps you have to get zoning approvals, you have to get your plans approved … then you have to build it and then you have to market it. You’re talking about years of work.”
Many of these builders were likely banking on the possibility that rental demand would just keep going up and up—but they bet wrong.
“We have a large amount of supply that came into the market within a fairly short period of time,” says Edward Mermelstein, a real estate attorney with One and Only Holdings in New York City. “At the same time, the demand has waned substantially.”
How do college kids afford a luxury rental, anyway?
While luxury rentals in any other city might be hurting right about now, New York is well-positioned to solve this problem, thanks to its high student population and limited dorm space.
“Renting to college students in Manhattan or Brooklyn has always been a trend, as there’s a total of almost 250,000 active students on this small island,” says Michael Jeneralczuk, a real estate agent with REAL New York. “With that said, luxury apartments are usually outside of student budgets.”
While a luxury rental might be outside of any individual student’s budget, a larger group of students can make it work. According to the Post, the King’s College students are paying a combined $6,000 per month for a two-bedroom apartment housing four people, which comes to $1,500 per person. This is more affordable than trying to rent alone; even a studio apartment at The Azure starts at $2,399 per month, according to the building’s website.
Meanwhile, the nonstudent rate for a two-bedroom apartment at The Azure starts at $3,391 per month. So by renting to King’s College students, the building is also making almost twice as much per apartment. So, at least for these two parties, it’s a win-win.
“It’s an opportunity to fill vacant apartments and collect rent,” says Becki Danchik, a real estate agent with Warburg Realty in New York City.
Given that the luxury rental market is slowing down nationwide, does this mean renters across the country might expect college-aged neighbors soon, too?
According to Reiss, it depends on development levels. In Los Angeles, construction has stalled, so apartments are filling up. Seattle, on the other hand, is facing similar issues as New York City.
“Seattle has had a construction boom, which means there are a lot of empty apartments,” says Reiss. “You face a similar situation where landlords are going to look to find some way to rent those out and make their money back.”
How to deal with college-aged neighbors
So if you come home one day to find a gaggle of college kids moving in—and assuming you’re so over college life—what can you do? For starters, you can’t just tell your landlord you’re breaking your lease and moving out because a bunch of Gen Z folks live next door.
“For regular tenants who were already living there, it cannot legally be a function of ‘Well, you rented the next-door apartment to a college student and therefore I can break my lease,'” says Shmulewitz, the real estate attorney with Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman.
However, you do have a right to peace and quiet in your home—so if those college students are breaking any lease rules on noise, drugs, or indecent exposure, you have a good case to shut that stuff down.
The best place to start may be with talking to the students directly. They may not understand that the regular, working folks living next door need sleep. Or they might just need a reminder.
And if they don’t listen? Most apartment buildings have rules against excessive noise and au naturel sunbathing, so it’s time to nudge management about actually enforcing those rules.
“Every building has guidelines to create a certain atmosphere,” says Mermelstein. “Sometimes that gets a bit relaxed and the economy dictates what winds up being accepted by ownership.”
If talking to your neighbors and your landlord doesn’t work, you have a case for breaking your lease or discontinuing rent payments if other tenants are disturbing your quality of life.
“Most residential leases contain a clause that guarantees the right to ‘quiet enjoyment,'” says Heather Carbone, a real estate agent in Boston. “It is an implied warranty of habitability.”
To make a case, Shmulewitz says you must document your complaints. He recommends sending an email to your landlord as close to the time of the incident as possible and including documentation (e.g., a sound recording if you’re complaining about noise).
At that point, the landlord may enforce the rules and could even begin eviction proceedings. Ideally, the landlord would work with your concerns, but if not, “the next step would be to claim a constructive eviction,” says Shmulewitz.
“You would tell the landlord, ‘You’ve made me unable to live in my home. I’m leaving and I’m not paying your rent anymore,'” says Shmulewitz. If only one of the rooms is uninhabitable due to noise or odor, then you might consider not paying full rent.
How to avoid this situation in the first place
One approach to avoiding this type of situation in the first place might be to ask questions about who lives in the apartment buildings you’re considering. You probably won’t get an answer, though.
“Real estate agents cannot legally speak about who lives in a building,” says Danchik. This is to help prevent housing discrimination and to stay in compliance with the Fair Housing Act.
As an alternative, Jeneralczuk recommends spending some time in the building.
“Sit in the lobby for half an hour or more,” he says. “Tour the amenities a few times, and check out the area.”
Carbone suggests looking for online reviews of potential apartments. “A quick search might help shed some light on potential issues as well,” she says.
You could also look for rentals in co-ops and condo buildings. Danchik says that these buildings have a much more involved approval process, and “individual owners tend to be a bit more cautious about subletting.” To college kids or otherwise.
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