Many New Yorkers have apartment stories, But Evan Zes’ experience is on another level.
When Zes moved to New York in 2000 to pursue a career on the stage, he wound up renting in a “two-bedroom gold-mine rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side.”
He assumed that his roommate was the leaseholder, but four months in, after the roommate got hit by a car and had a sort of psychotic break, skipping town the next morning, Zes was left with the apartment.
He not only learned that the roommate had been charging him an amount that covered the entire apartment at Third Avenue and East 80th Street but also that the actual leaseholder had been living in New Zealand for 15 years.
So what did he do with his newfound freedom?
“I started subletting like crazy. I got greedy,” Zes admits. “Then Airbnb came along, and it got crazy.”
He calls his play — in which he portrays about 30 characters — a cautionary tale.
“I got taken by a scam artist while I was out of town,” Zes said. “I wasn’t trying to make that much money. I was just trying to supplement my career as an artist. I just got taken.”
The scammer held open houses while he was working out-of-town in regional theater productions and would take cash from unsuspecting renters, giving them keys in return.
“He found me on Airbnb," Zes recounted. "I foolishly made a deal off the site with him. We never met. He picked up the keys I left at a barber shop."
“I changed the lock on my front door. But they could still get in the building," he added. "They’d come banging on my door. It was like zombies from the ‘Walking Dead.’”
The scammer was eventually convicted of running a $500,000 scheme defrauding scores of people, Zes said.
The incident brought Zes face-to-face with his landlord for the first time — “and he was like a low-level gangster.”
Besides trying to oust Zes from the $1,200-a-month unit — perhaps with just reason — the landlord was also threatening frail elderly women who lived in the building — probably without just reason, Zes noted.
Rent control applies to buildings constructed before 1947 and units occupied by a tenant and, in some cases, their relatives, spouses or life partners who have lived there continuously since before July 1, 1971.
Moreover, it is illegal to rent out an apartment for fewer than 30 days, unless the host is present — though its owners are on the hook for any fines levied by the city — and laws on rent regulated housing have even stricter rules on subleasing.
Though he realizes he could be vilified for some of what he did, Zes still feels like his story is hitting a nerve with audiences.
The show has been sold out from “day 1,” said Zes.
He is hopeful there will be a few more performances added in September, and said a literary agent, who saw it, is also trying to help extend the play’s life.
Though Zes lost his apartment, many of his belongings and his investment — he had begun renovating the Upper East Side unit — he now lives in Astoria and has a much better quality of life, with a backyard and friends who live nearby.
“I’m like, things happen for a reason,” he said of finding peace with his new digs. “That’s kind of the why I was able to write this.”