Things started innocuously enough: “Hi! Hope you’re well,” my landlord texted on an afternoon in July. “I noticed the ladder is leaning on the fence. Would you put it down? It doesn’t seem smart to have it there.” She ended things with a cheerful “Thanks!” My roommate and I had been in the apartment, a beautiful if awkwardly laid out two-bedroom in a two-family building in Crown Heights, for a little over a month. At $2,800, it was the most we had ever spent, but there was a backyard with a lush garden and a stand-alone kitchen with great light. The landlord, a middle-aged artist, lived above us, but she seemed friendly and easy to chat with when we found the place on the Listings Project.
Not wanting to start off on the wrong foot, I hurried home and moved the offending ladder. We had already said no to her request for 12 predated rent checks, which she described as “standard practice,” and we didn’t want to seem like difficult tenants. Then she admonished us when we lit a fire in our backyard firepit despite the fact that it had been there before we moved in. Come winter, we noticed she had taken down the holiday card we taped to the door for the mail carrier. A few weeks later, she insisted we shared the responsibility of clearing ice and snow off the stoop and sidewalk because we lived in similarly sized units. “It is the responsibility of whoever lives in the house, not necessarily the landlord,” she wrote us, perhaps forgetting the fact that she both was the landlord and lived in the house.
The live-in landlord is often marketed as an asset — a real human connection in a sea of corporate management companies and faceless property owners. (“We love creating, traveling and learning from the world around us,” one listing reads from a family renting out a two-bedroom in their Brooklyn brownstone for $3,000.) And there’s some truth to this — they likely have more of an incentive to fix a busted boiler or to not raise the rent if they have a good relationship with their tenant. (Our landlord acted quickly when we discovered bedbugs.)
Left out of these perfect images of neighborliness: the helicopter landlord. The one who is constantly hovering on the margins of your private life. The one whose idiosyncrasies — a penchant for extended small talk, an acute sensitivity to noise after 5 p.m., a habit of keeping a quiet account of your guests as they come and go — you have to put up with if you want to stay in your apartment. The helicopter landlord is someone who has no boundaries: You live alongside them, but unlike a roommate or a neighbor, you are not the same. They have no obligation to renew your lease, which grants them total power over one of the most foundational parts of your life. “You know how in Marie Antoinette times, they would pay for an ornamental hermit to live on their property?” a friend who lives below their landlord told me. “Sometimes I feel like I’m an ornamental hermit living below my landlord’s stairs.”
Helicopter landlords can take many forms, but they tend to share a lack of self-awareness about the power imbalance baked into the relationship. Like my landlord who seemed hurt by our expectation that she might be responsible for clearing the sidewalks, one renter, Maddie, told me about the time her landlord insisted on taking her and her roommate to Peter Luger for dinner after a pipe had burst in their apartment. (He wanted to “make it up” to them.) It felt impossible to say no, Maddie said, so they awkwardly sat through the meal while he made vaguely homophobic comments. (“And I don’t like steak!” she added.) Another tenant had to strategize the best way to ask her landlord to keep his massive dogs inside rather than let them roam around the building and terrify her visitors. You don’t want to make them mad; you also don’t want to get evicted. As my roommate put it, you’re often just living in the moments between the uncomfortable interactions with the person who will ultimately decide on your rent increases. (Everyone who was still living adjacent to their landlord declined to be named, for obvious reasons.)
There’s something almost inevitable about the helicopter landlord: Homeownership — a means of building personal wealth — can likely make almost anyone feel as if they have both the right and the obligation to control their more transient (and replaceable) tenants. (It’s not their money on the line!) One person told me about the helicopter landlord who told them to remove a chair from their backyard because it wasn’t, they claimed, made of the “correct outdoor-chair material.” Another recounted the time they told their landlord in advance they were going to have around 20 people over for a birthday party only to be informed they couldn’t because “if you have that many people over, the floor will collapse.” One tenant, who lives in a small Clinton Hill building, said their landlords would sit and watch them come in and out of the apartment from their front window; when they had family visiting for a month, their landlords accused them of running an Airbnb.
But living with a helicopter landlord isn’t merely an inconvenience. Sometimes it means renters end up taking on their duties or live in subpar conditions to avoid offending them. Some tenants in landlord-occupied buildings said they took on most of their apartment maintenance themselves to avoid further interacting with their landlord, while others said they lived for months without heat but didn’t call 311 because it felt harder to report someone they knew more intimately — and they feared possible retaliation given that their landlords lived right below them.
When I read off some of the landlord restrictions I heard while reporting this piece — visitor limits, veto power on outdoor furniture — Sam Himmelstein, a real-estate lawyer who represents tenants, said that while there may not be a clear legal basis for any of them if they’re not outlined in a lease, people may be stuck with them all the same. “On a practical level, if you want to live in this situation and you’re on top of your landlord, you gotta sometimes bite the bullet,” he said. These are also more than just awkward arrangements: Tenants in smaller market-rate units have very few protections compared with those in rent-stabilized buildings. Most of the time, it’s simply not worth challenging your landlord when they insist your dog walks loud, especially given that you’ll probably end up being booted once your lease is up. “Ultimately, if the landlord wants you out in a situation like that, you’re probably not going to end up staying there,” Himmelstein said.
After a year in our artist-owned place in Crown Heights, my roommate and I moved out. I ended up finding an affordable one-bedroom in a large rent-stabilized building managed by a faceless and notoriously bad management company. I knew a corporate landlord was an infinitely worse actor in the grander scheme of the rental market, but I was actually relieved in the day-to-day. I preferred the stark clarity of the arrangement over having to constantly deal with the psychology of one particular person who was acutely aware of everything I was doing and whom I could inadvertently upset at any moment. But people put up with a lot just to stay in a decent apartment, especially in New York City. The tenant who shares her hallways with a pair of huge dogs is still in the same place despite the inconvenience. So is the ornamental hermit. The tenant who can’t have birthday parties isn’t going anywhere, either. “It feels worth it,” they told me. “The apartment is so nice.”