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My Tenant Split Without Paying the Rent. What Are My Options?

Q: My tenant moved out of the Harlem condo unit that I own, leaving behind a significant debt and no forwarding address. She owes me $4,700 in unpaid rent and $15,000 in unpaid electricity bills. She began falling behind on the rent early in the pandemic when she lost some of her work contracts, and kept promising me that she would settle the debt. But when the lease expired, she moved out and ceased communications. Can I use her Social Security number to find her? How can I recover the losses?

A: Your tenant’s debt should not have grown as large as it did. Normally, a landlord would file a nonpayment case against such a tenant in housing court. But during the peak of the pandemic, housing court was closed and evictions were halted, limiting your options.

“The timing of this was particularly awful,” said Sherwin Belkin, a Manhattan lawyer who represents landlords, adding that under typical circumstances, “it’s much better to nip it in the bud.”

Since the tenant has moved out, you could sue her for breach of contract, though it’s a long and expensive process. To do that, first you need to locate her. If you’re unable to do it online or through a public records search, hire a private investigator. (You cannot, however, use her Social Security number, which is sensitive information given to you confidentially for other purposes, to track her down.)

Once you locate her, hire a lawyer to handle the lawsuit. Real estate attorneys usually bill by the hour for cases like this, so your costs will add up fast. Sometimes just serving a person with a complaint is enough to lure them to the table. Your former tenant might look at the situation and decide that it would be cheaper to settle the case than risk going to trial. While a settlement wouldn’t make you whole, it would bring about a quicker resolution.

As an alternative, you could hire a law firm that specializes in collections, which would collect unpaid rent, utilities and damages on your behalf. Such firms work on a contingency basis, charging a percentage of whatever award you ultimately receive.

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