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Cheapest Digs in Town: Tenant Pays Just $1 a Month for Harlem Two-Bedroom

By James Fanelli | August 12, 2013 6:57am
 David Lieberman pays a measly $1 a month for two-bedroom apartment, according to court records.
Harlem Man Pays $1 a Month to Rent Two-Bedroom Apartment
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HARLEM — David Lieberman has endured a rackety radiator, hot water headaches and an accused slumlord's legal threats, but the housing hiccups are a small price to pay when you have the cheapest rent in town.

With the average Manhattan apartment going for $3,822 a month, Lieberman holds the holy grail of real estate deals. The 30-year-old tenant pays a measly $1 a month to lease a two-bedroom in a seven-story building in the hottest section of Harlem.

That’s not a typo — one dollar.

Lieberman, a film editor, has lived in the pad since January 2006, each year paying less than the price of a movie ticket, according to court records.

The rock bottom rate is due to a fire that broke out in the Morningside Avenue building more than a decade ago and a decision by the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which the landlord has so far fought unsuccessfully to overturn.

When he moved in, Lieberman didn’t know he had hit the housing jackpot. He signed a two-year lease with the building’s owner, 98 Morningside Inc., agreeing to pay $2,100 a month.

The apartment’s true value came to light a few months after Lieberman’s move-in, when the prior tenants — a CBS News executive and her husband — slapped him and 98 Morningside with a lawsuit. Those tenants, Sonya McNair Tonge and Deryck Tonge, accused 98 Morningside of wrongfully evicting them and demanded the landlord throw out Lieberman so they could move back in.

The Tonges had lived in the unit and paid $436 a month for the rent-stabilized apartment until they were forced to move out following a fire in Nov. 2002. While the Tonges were displaced the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees rent-stabilization rules, reduced their rent to $1 a month.

The state agency noted that so long as they paid that amount, they were entitled to return to the apartment when the landlord made repairs.

A year later, while the Tonges still lived elsewhere, 98 Morningside tried to have the rent restored to $436. DHCR denied the request, and the rent remained at $1.

The landlord finished renovations on the apartment in 2005. The Tonges claimed in their lawsuit that they continued to ask when they could move back in, but they were never notified. Instead 98 Morningside — which is owned by Baruch Singer, a developer known for buying distressed properties — had a broker show it to new tenants and set the rent at market rate.

Lieberman spotted the apartment on Craigslist and inked a lease.

After receiving the Tonges' lawsuit, Lieberman lawyered up and filed a counter-claim against 98 Morningside, alleging he knew the apartment had been rent-stabilized but had been led to believe it no longer was. He stopped paying rent in September 2006 and accused the landlord of grossly overcharging him, according to his lawsuit.

Lieberman also described the building as “badly kept” and itemized a slew of apartment woes, including heating problems, a broken bedroom window and a noisy radiator that makes a sound like popcorn popping.

The Tonges eventually withdrew their lawsuit, but 98 Morningside settled with Lieberman in 2011, agreeing to pay him $104,000 in overcharges and legal fees, according to court records.

Not surprisingly, the $1-a-month rent remains a bone of contention.

Last week, 98 Morningside filed a petition in Manhattan Civil Supreme Court, demanding that DHCR decide on its request to raise the rents from $1 to $2,100.

The landlord claims that it made the necessary improvements seven years ago, but DHCR hasn’t responded to an application it submitted in March 2012. The court filing says that the landlord has lost about $176,400 in rent since Lieberman moved into the apartment.

Singer and his lawyer did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Singer bought the property in 2002. His properties have a history of being slapped with violations. In 2007, the city Department of Buidings fined 98 Morningside $50,000 for a broken elevator — one of the largest civil penalties at the time.

Lieberman and his lawyer also did not respond to requests for comment. The lawsuit filed by 98 Morningside says that Lieberman has challenged its application before the DHCR.

A spokesman for DHCR said it could not discuss the case, citing privacy laws.