The Tenant Safe Harbor Act Comes to The Hamptons

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Jonah Engel Bromwich and Ezra Marcus

The Tenant Safe Harbor Act Comes to The Hamptons

Cheryl Berman-Schechter, 50, has been going to Montauk, the hamlet on the eastern tip of Long Island, since the early 1990s. Back then it was a fishing village, with a mix of middle- and working-class residents. She and her husband, Matthew Schechter, bought property there in 2008. When Ms. Berman chooses tenants, she hopes to find people who respect the place’s history.

“I want people that Montauk matters to,” Ms. Berman-Schechter, 50, said in a recent phone interview from Colombia, where she and Mr. Schechter, the financial officer at an audio equipment website, have lived since 2016.

This summer, Ms. Berman-Schechter rented the house to a wellness professional and aspirational influencer from the New York area named Marisa Hochberg. Ms. Hochberg, 32, has professed a lifelong devotion to Montauk — a setting both salubrious and glamorous, ideal for someone developing a personal brand in the lifestyle field.

“Spending youthful summers at my family home in Montauk is where I felt most serene,” Ms. Hochberg wrote in an essay for The Purist, a website founded by Cristina Cuomo where Ms. Hochberg works as an executive sales director, according to her LinkedIn profile. (Calls to Ms. Cuomo, a highly followed “wellness worshiper” also devoted to the Hamptons, went unanswered.) She wrote that The End — a nickname for Montauk — “has this special aura surrounding it — the water and the bucolic setting of the lighthouse, the greenery and the rich history. Whenever I arrived, I felt like I had really escaped to a place where I could be myself.” In an interview about weight loss with Yahoo.com five years ago, she said, “Montauk was, in some strange way, like my support system.”

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Credit…Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Ms. Hochberg’s focus on healthy living, her stated aversion to drugs and alcohol and her job at a local hot spot, the Surf Lodge, convinced Ms. Berman-Schechter that she would be an agreeable tenant.

In May, they signed a lease that ran from June 1 to Aug. 8. Ms. Hochberg had asked to stay the entire summer, said Ms. Berman-Schechter, who replied that it wasn’t possible. In early August, she planned to give the house over to family friends: college professors who rent it every summer.

Two weeks after moving in, Ms. Hochberg messaged Ms. Berman-Schechter. “This is probably a dumb question bc you just built the house but you aren’t looking to sell by any chance. I’ve fallen in love with it haha — figured I’d ask!” The house was not for sale.

On Instagram, where Ms. Hochberg promotes products to her following of 12,000, the hamlet had already become her backdrop of choice. This summer, the Berman-Schechters’ house became an idyllic setting for her endorsements, like acupuncture services, hair dryers and tanner.

On June 12, Ms. Hochberg posted a picture of herself on Instagram standing underneath a Japanese dogwood tree in the Berman-Schechters’ garden. “Montauk mornings in my new summer garden,” the caption read, along with several hashtags including #goodmorning and #myownhome.

Her stay was uneventful for the first several weeks, with a key exception. On June 15, when it came time for her to pay the $ 14,450 that constituted the second half of her rent, she did not pay, the Berman-Schechters said in multiple court filings.

Several days before Ms. Hochberg was scheduled to move out, according to Ms. Berman-Schechter, her father, who was listed on the lease as an occupant of the house, called and asked that his daughter be able to stay. The landlord said no. On a text message thread with both Hochbergs after the call, she offered to help find Ms. Hochberg somewhere else to live.

Ms. Hochberg’s tone changed.

“You’re going to kick an almost 91-year-old man out in the middle of a global pandemic?” she texted. She added that she and her father were protected by a law passed to shield vulnerable tenants during the pandemic. Later she sent a New York Post article about moneyed tenants who had taken advantage of the law. (In a conversation with The New York Times, Mr. Hochberg played down his occupancy of the Berman-Schechters’ place. “I think I slept there one night,” he said. “I have my own place in Montauk.”)

On Sept. 1, according to a court filing, Ms. Hochberg hadn’t paid what she owed, and hadn’t left the house. She posted a picture of herself to Instagram that day, holding the door of the Berman-Schechters’ outdoor shower open. The caption read: “I’ve heard September is the new August 🙃

Credit…Pat O’Malley for The New York Times

The Berman-Schechters are far from the only landlords who have had trouble getting short-term tenants to pay rent or leave their rentals during the pandemic. Tenant-protection laws passed by the state of New York in order to shield the vulnerable both before and during the pandemic have been used as a cudgel by wealthy renters, as well as those who wish to portray themselves living in luxury.

“When the legislature enacted this law, I’m sure that they did not intend to protect people in this way, renting units, houses in the Hamptons, for tens of thousands of dollars a month,” said Steven Kirkpatrick, a partner at the Romer Debbas law firm in Manhattan who specializes in housing law. (Ms. Hochberg had agreed in May to pay $ 31,750 for her stay in Montauk.)

Robert Marcincuk, of O’Shea, Marcincuk and Bruyn in Southampton, said he had 10 landlord clients with tenant headaches there.

The tenants his clients were fighting “do have money, they do have jobs, and they choose not to pay the rent,” he said.

Christian Killoran, the president of Killoran Law in Westhampton Beach, said he has over half a dozen clients in the Hamptons in a similar situation to the Berman-Schechters.

“It’s happening all over the place,” Mr. Killoran said. And people are talking. “Certainly landlords are and obviously tenants are too because you’re seeing the proliferation of the strategy.”

The Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law on June 30, extended pandemic-related protections that the governor had already established, making it difficult for landlords to obtain an eviction order, no matter whom their tenant might be. Tenant rights had already been buttressed by a law passed the previous year, the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act.

Judith Goldiner, the attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society, said that the laws would help many people who were suffering in New York, pointing to a recent survey that indicated that 58 percent of Black renters, 57 percent of Hispanic or Latino renters and 37 percent of white renters in New York were unsure of their ability to pay their October rent.

“Anytime you have a law, there’s going to be some bad people who take advantage of it, but there are so many thousands — maybe millions in New York State — who will be helped by the Safe Harbor Act,” she said, emphasizing that the protection only extended to January 1.

But during a summer like no other, cases of wealthy squatters attracted public attention. In June, Air Mail reported that a Hamptons realtor, Jonathan Davis, had trashed a property he’d leased, and had refused to leave. In a court filing, Mr. Davis’s landlords, Giancarlo Bonagura and Paula Rosado, accused him of overstaying his lease because he believed that the tenant laws passed during the pandemic would leave them with no legal recourse.

Mr. Davis did not respond to emails and voice mail messages requesting comment. A spokeswoman at his real estate firm, Nest Seekers, declined to comment.

In August, The New York Post reported that a Manhattan developer and a former owner of the Tunnel nightclub, Marco Ricotta, had stopped paying rent on his Westhampton vacation home. Mr. Killoran, who represented Mr. Ricotta’s landlord, said that the case had been settled this week. Mr. Ricotta did not respond to phone calls or text messages seeking comment.

Credit…Pat O’Malley for The New York Times

Ms. Hochberg said in a text message that her family has owned property in Montauk for 35 years. (Ms. Hochberg’s father, a retired liquor retailer, is on the board of directors for a high-rise called Montauk Manor, where he also owns an apartment, a four-minute drive from the Berman-Schechters’ home. He is also on the boards of a hospital in Brooklyn and an Upper East Side synagogue, and has long been involved in community revitalization, in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens.)

Early in her career, Ms. Hochberg worked on a series of wellness events in the Hamptons and Montauk for corporate clients. In 2017, she began working as the partnerships and wellness director at Surf Lodge, a nightclub founded in 2007 by the Brazilian-born entrepreneur Jayma Cardoso.

With celebrities including Jaden Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Taylor Swift, Khloe Kardashian and Tiffany Trump among its customers, Surf Lodge has brought the glitz (and noise) of the neighboring Hamptons to The End. Ms. Hochberg helped introduce daytime wellness programming to offset the nighttime bacchanals.

“She’s a good person at work, she’s extremely dedicated,” Ms. Cardoso said of Ms. Hochberg. “I can send her an email at 11 at night and she responds.”

The two women spoke about plans to expand Surf Lodge’s wellness programming for an article published in The New York Post on Sept. 28. By that point, court records show, Ms. Hochberg was already embroiled in a legal battle with the Berman-Schechters, who found they had little leverage to remove her from the property. After the Berman-Schechters’ lawyer filed a petition asking a court to compel Ms. Hochberg to leave the house, Ms. Hochberg’s lawyer, Christopher McGuire, used the 2019 tenant protection act to argue for dismissal.

The Berman-Schechters’ lawyer, Brian Lester, withdrew the initial suit, which had been unsuccessful in prompting a settlement, and filed another to seek possession of the house and also to recover damages.

A spokeswoman at Mr. McGuire’s office said this week that he was no longer representing Ms. Hochberg.

As well as citing her father’s health, Ms. Hochberg told her landlords that she was in dire financial straits after being laid off from Surf Lodge. (Ms. Cardoso confirmed that Ms. Hochberg was laid off midway through the summer, along with about a hundred others.) Ms. Hochberg also suggested that she had likely become infected with Covid-19 while working an event at the Lodge in August as a contractor, after having been laid off.

“I don’t think new tenants would want a Covid-infested house?” she wrote in an email on Aug. 7. Ms. Cardoso said that after a Covid-19 scare at Surf Lodge that month, Ms. Hochberg had been tested twice, with negative results.

Ms. Berman-Schechter had never before run into this kind of tenant trouble. (When she and her husband bought the property, she was working as a digital product manager for The Times, a role on the business side of the organization. She left in 2011.) She did not run a background check that could have revealed an eviction case filed against Ms. Hochberg by River Tower Owner LLC, the corporation that owns the Oriana, a luxury high-rise in Manhattan. (That filing, from April 2019, indicated that she owed the company $ 22,130.)

And when Ms. Hochberg did not pay in June, Ms. Berman-Schechter was in the midst of relocating from Bogotá, which was almost entirely shut down because of the coronavirus, to a farm an hour and a half away, where her two sons could be outside. She did not aggressively pursue the missing rent.

“I honestly don’t have a great answer,” Ms. Berman-Schechter said when asked why she was not more concerned then. “Trust me, my husband has asked me the same thing.”

As the conflict between Ms. Hochberg and the Berman-Schechters intensified, people started to gossip.

Ms. Cardoso was asked about the dispute, on the beach and at the hardware store, she said. Ever-protective of her establishment’s relationship with locals, she called Ms. Berman-Schechter to find out what was going on. Then she asked Ms. Hochberg. “She wanted this to be a personal matter and not have me involved, which I totally respect,” Ms. Cardoso said. “It is her life, her matter. Surf Lodge has nothing to do with it.”

Ms. Cardoso also said that Ms. Hochberg’s behavior was out of character. “I’m very surprised that this happened,” she said.

The Berman-Schechters say they made multiple attempts to settle with Ms. Hochberg, to no avail. When on Yom Kippur, the solemn Jewish holiday of repentance, Mr. Hochberg had a letter published on his synagogue’s website about the importance of charity, Mr. Schechter made an Instagram account with the handle @lyingmarissa using an image of Ms. Hochberg as the profile picture and misspelling her name. He then quoted her father’s words on one of Ms. Hochberg’s Instagram posts. (He said that he took the account down after a day because he was concerned it was “spurious.”)

“My daughter wants to sue them,” Mr. Hochberg told The Times. “They put her picture up and wrote all kinds of crazy things.” He called the Berman-Schechters “nasty” and “vengeful” and said that they were trying to harass his family for money.

Ms. Hochberg did not initially respond when The Times contacted her by phone and email. Through an intermediary, she told the Berman-Schechters that she would move out on Oct. 12.

It was cold and rainy in Montauk that day. White spray shot up from the Long Island Sound, visible from the Montauk highway. End-of-season prices and social-distancing requirements at the Montauk Clothing Company caused a line to form outside the store. Off the main drag, deer roamed the streets, unperturbed by the occasional car. Outside the Berman-Schechters’ house, shortly after noon, a purple moving van was loaded up. Within an hour, it was gone.

Later that day, Ms. Hochberg responded to The Times, calling the story “fake news.” She did not answer follow-up questions about her extended summer.

The Berman-Schechters said that afternoon that they had gotten their key back, but that they still hadn’t been paid. Also that afternoon, a representative of the property group that manages the Oriana, the Manhattan apartment building, said that the group would not comment. Though the eviction case against Ms. Hochberg had been filed in 2019, the company was still in litigation against her, seeking to reclaim possession of the Oriana apartment.


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