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Affordable Housing Horrors: Nightmare on 11th Street

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Let's face it. The housing issue is hot. And in Manhattan, it's a slow burn.

Bloomberg had his mini-pad apartments. Lhota's all for low-cost Housing First units. De Blasio's all about affordable housing. And even Independent candidate Carrion says Let's make it your city. Tenants, landlords, realtors and politicians unite. Really?

We've got tenants' rights guides, projects and hotlines till the cockroaches come home. We've even got a NYS Tenants' Protection Unit. But what about policies on tenants' trust? Nope -- nothing mandated, legislated, published, tweeted or twittered about Landlord Loyalty.

Loyalty's a funny thing. After 30 years as a guest at Starbucks, I've received coffee coupons, espresso samples and freebie lattés. After 30 years of banking at Chase, I've earned enough Ultimate Rewards for a free round trip to Anguilla and lifetime dinners at the Four Seasons. After 30 years as a loyal tenant -- enduring three agonizing years of soot damages -- I was rewarded with an unexpected eviction. My last day? October 31. Hallowe'en. Spooky. If orange is the new black, I guess it all makes some ghoulish sense.

I was always the girl in Apt. 23 -- the quintessential New Yorker, the free spirit of Greenwich Village, wobbling down West 11th Street in platform heels way before Carrie Bradshaw lost her Jimmy Choos. I was Cool Quirky Girl decades before Zooey New Girl met 2 Broke Girls. After one and a half seasons, ABC's primetime hit Don't Trust the B___ in Apt. 23 was cancelled. Alas, after three decades, my Apt. 23 lease was cancelled. And all because of soot.

If soot falls from your fireplace and no one sees it, does the landlord end your lease?

In Manhattan, no one returns an apartment. You hold onto it for dear life. Unless of course a) you move out of the city; b) you find something cheaper; c) you move in with your boyfriend; or d) you're forced into it. Put me down for d).

I'd landed the lease of my dreams: a $550-a-month, 17' x 17' furnished basement apartment with original wide plank floors in a 200-year-old landmark townhouse -- the first tenement to go co-op in Greenwich Village. My landlord was an artist who lived upstairs. What more could a girl with writer/performer dreams want? Just down the block from Magnolia Bakery and the White Horse Tavern, I could munch cupcakes and drink cocktails around the clock. My mom always said I had a river view (the Hudson was due west) -- that is, if I stuck my head out the window and craned my neck. In reality, I saw ankles and feet. My front studio was probably the maid's quarters; my windowless kitchen a closet. And yes, it was a dark basement studio with sagging ceilings. But it had something no true romantic could resist: a fireplace.

The fireplace was all: I'd sipped my first martini, wrote my first ABC commentary and made love on Yom Kippur -- all in front of that fireplace. I'd placed sepia photos of my Dad at eight years old and my grandmother in stage costume on the mantle, as well as a rectangular mirror painted fire engine red that I'd dragged in from the street. Who knew it could all go up in smoke?

Is there any hope for color on the landlord/tenant palette, or is it doomed to be black and white forever? When the landlord just happens to be a painter, you'd expect at least a dab of yellow ochre. In my case, I got burnt siena.

Listen up, mayoral candidates. Here's the real deal on NYC housing: some tips for tenants before signing a lease -- affordable or not.

1. Personal Bonding - Let's face it. The only loyal Bond is James. Talk about shaken, not stirred. Kindred spirits, my landlord and I shared art openings, family deaths, births, philosophical dialogues, paper clutter, and 9/11. He inscribed his last book to me in memory of our long friendship and warmth, wishing me great new artistic dreams. Just remember: that landlord-tenant bond can snap faster than you can say 007.

2. Neighborly Cool - The scene was hip, just like the neighborhood. My landlord lived in the floor-through above me. I grew up with his family. His kids checked out my boyfriends; I listened to their adolescent groans. When I loaned (okay, so he borrowed without asking) the only thing of value, my cherry wood music stand, he returned it broken, glued gloppily together. But I never made a fuss. He gave me full garden rights when he was off in his Berkshires country home.

3. E.M.S. - Elusive Meteorological Signs - Pay attention to eerie weather patterns. The devil's in the details: it started on a sultry August afternoon -- the kind that sparked violent arguments on southern verandas. Only this was a Greenwich Village studio apartment, not a Mississippi plantation. And it was real life, not a Tennessee Williams play. Summer smoke and cocktails were in the air. Soot was never on the agenda.

4. Fictional Characters (see also #11 and #12, below) - Once your daily life starts merging with fairy tales, take note. Entering my dark apartment, I noticed black footprints near the fireplace. Soot had fallen down the flu like Alice in Wonderland falling down the black hole. I ran upstairs to question the neighbor who was renovating his apartment. Contractors, drilling, the works. Grinning like the Cheshire Cat, he denied any part in the soot saga. Turns out the flu was damaged to the tune of $6,908.91. Was there a Smoking Caterpillar lurking?

5. Open Door Policy - When one door opens, another door closes. Lulled upstairs by the sounds of country fiddlers one spring afternoon, I met a Bleecker Street leather sandal maker, a neighborhood fixture from the '60s, using my landlord's apartment for music-making. I'd had three decades of welcome open door policy -- a glorious calm before the unexpected storm. In the end, the door was slammed shut.

In the land of NYC housing, Murphy's Law comes in triplicate. Things that can go wrong do, and they show up in clumps of three. In my Apt. 23, the Trinity was not so much Father, Son and Holy Ghost as Soot, Smoke and Holy Rent.

6. Soot Happens - This is true of love, and even truer of landlords. Once an apartment is covered in soot, moods turn frosty, and talk of lawsuits dance in the air. When I gently suggested withholding rent, my landlord hung up on me.

7. Numerology - Beware of calendar holidays and meeting dates for settlements. The olive branch date? June 21: first day of summer, symbolic of fresh peonies and soft breezes. Not exactly. After three long years of soot mania, we'd finally reached a settlement. The merry trio: the neighbor, the insurance adjuster and the landlord. It was nothing if not congenial. Really?

8. Sudden Turnaround Behavior - Doing a 360° is common. Three days later, after some cocktail party chit chat about his new play, my comrade hit me with a 60 percent rent hike. Rationale? The grandkids' college education (they were both under five years old). Bonus? Denied use of my cherished fireplace. A month later, the offer was reneged and replaced by a final decision not to renew my lease. No explanation given.

Is a touch of humanity too much to expect after 30 years, particularly from a kindred spirit, who chose to live in the heart of the Village of the '60s, who befriended the very bohemian writers, artists and musicians who created the very touch of soul he was soon to deny?

9. Wicked Glitch of Easy - When things go too smoothly, it's usually a sign of complications to come. If your landlord is 3,000 miles away in the Pacific Northwest, and okays your hiring a maid brigade for $250/hour, trouble is lurking. Moments before they started sucking up the soot, I decided not to clean up the mess -- that would erase all the evidence. Eight months of "restoration" later (three cleanings, polyurethaning and other chemical procedures too complicated to mention), soot was still sprinkled everywhere: in the clothes, in the wooden floorboards, and in the air particles.

10. A.I. - Artificial Intelligence or Acronym Invasion - When the number of professionals tramping into your apartment seems inversely proportional to the number of improvements coming out, it's a problem. I learned more about NYC housing, www.nyc.gov, and ACRIS building records than if I'd been appointed Deputy Commissioner of Landlord-Tenant Relations. There was a steady stream of Acronym Invaders (DHCR, HPD, DOH and DOB); the NYC Fire Department; chimney experts; and restoration outfits (one that sent an armoire of silks and wools to the laundry instead of the dry cleaner, ruining thousands of dollars of clothes, including the turquoise mohair vest my Mom knitted me when I was 12).

11. Smoke & Mirrors - Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who's the unfairest of them all? After years on sleep mode, the fireplace was suddenly reawakened, like Sleeping Beauty. All that drilling from the renovation triggered the smoke. The cracked slab on the back wall resembled the Paleolithic caves at Lascaux, only there were no hieroglyphics on my wall. The only codes to be cracked were the landlord's.

12. The Emperor's New Clothes - Watch out for empty promises. As in Wonder Land-lord, nothing ever happens: It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. Cheap strips of brass are quick fixes when you need a fan to guide the smoke up the flu. The Board had said no. Had the Board even discussed it? Where were the minutes? Was it a case of The Co-op Emperor's New Clothes? After all, it was Fashion Week.

13. E.C.H.O. - E.erie C.onvoluted, H.ilarious, O.btuse explanations. Excuses for the Apt. 23 smoke ranged from a mysterious malfunctioning damper to a faulty flu repair. I was even blamed for turning the grate upside down. In fact, I'd been positioning it the same way for 30 years.

14. The Signed Agreement - When something is already signed, sealed and delivered, scan it first, and don't give it back. I gave mine back on good faith. BIG MISTAKE.

15. Landlord D.N.A. - Delays, Nonchalance & Apathy - Landlord deadlines are mandatory. Tenant deadlines are non-existent. My sofa bed was being delivered the very next day; I was expecting my first guests in a decade. I'd waited a long, maddening, soot-filled three years for this bed. Suddently the bathroom was entirely dismantled; there were gaping holes in the floor and wall, plaster and dirt everywhere. The landlord had already left the country. Seriously?

16. Words Speak Louder Than Actions - A month later, I received a new agreement with no option to renew. Beware the housing and realtor-ese jargon: all parties had agreed to the new fair market price (I had not); my deadline to leave was October 31. His weak explanation? Things change.

17. Job Delegation - Out of sight, out of mind. The landlord was out of my sight. I was out of my mind. While he was off in Bora-Bora, I was designated Super/Landlord, consumed with plumbers, plasterers and mechanics. My 9:00 to 5:00 boss wondered if I was making a career change from Executive Assistant to Janitor. After sending my landlord pictures of Apt. #23 war zone, I thought he'd melt. The glacier never thawed.

During a charmed 30-year run (a building record) in Apartment #23, I'd achieved the near impossible -- a New York friendship with my landlord. He was a comrade, so we had built-in camaraderie, right? Think again. Betrayal's the name of the game, from ketchup to co-ops. After four decades, McDonald's cut its ties with Heinz. After three, my landlord cut me loose.

In NYC, true love means never having to break up with your landlord. Forget about diamonds -- leases are forever. To avoid getting burned, watch for early warning signs of crumbling. Otherwise, 30 years later, 360 months' rent poorer, you'll be lease-less in Manhattan.