Q: In 2020, I lived in a three-bedroom apartment with two roommates. We all signed the lease, but each of us paid portions of the security deposit directly to the landlord. We also the paid the rent in three separate checks. During the pandemic, one roommate moved back home and stopped paying rent, while the other roommate and I stayed through the end of the lease and paid our portions of the rent on time. When we moved out at the end of the lease, we left the apartment in good condition, but when it came time to get our security deposit back, the landlord withheld the money on account of our former roommate. Can the landlord do this? What are my legal options to recoup my portion of that money?
A: When you and your roommates signed the lease, all of you assumed responsibility for the terms of the agreement, so all of you are on the hook for anything that goes wrong. If someone damaged the walls or painted a room turquoise without permission, you would be responsible for the costs, even if you weren’t the culprit. The same goes for unpaid rent: You are responsible for the entire rent, not just your portion of it. The landlord can withhold your security deposit over any unpaid rent.
“Given that there was unpaid rent, the landlord was completely within their rights to withhold the entire security, and the remaining tenants have no claim for it,” said Samuel Himmelstein, a Manhattan lawyer who represents tenants.
Your liability extends beyond the security deposit — the three of you still owe the landlord whatever rent your roommate did not pay. The landlord could sue you and your two roommates for the remaining unpaid rent, or turn the outstanding debt over to a collection agency, which would come after you for the balance. Keep an eye out for a letter from a collection agency. If the landlord walks away from the loss, consider yourself lucky.
The scenario you described is not uncommon. Many New Yorkers, often facing job losses, moved out of the city during the pandemic, leaving roommates on the hook. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation again, know that the state’s rent laws allow you to find a new roommate. You do not need your landlord’s permission or approval to do this — you can simply find a person willing to rent the room, collect the rent directly from that person, and pay it to the landlord. This would have allowed you to pay rent in full for the rest of the term, and collect your security deposit at the end.