Real Estate

NY Times real estate writer sued, accused of owing $35K in rent dispute

Seeking a temporary Upper West Side rental apartment to flee noisy construction for $2,999 per month. Which option did this couple choose?

One that ultimately got them sued, with allegations that they owe at least $35,000 in back rent and costs.

Joyce Cohen, the New York Times contributor who writes “The Hunt” — a weekly column that has long chronicled locals’ challenges of finding a new home in notoriously expensive and competitive New York City — has a real estate headache of her own: charges against her for unpaid rent at a property near Central Park in a sublet deal, one which landlords claim is also illegal.

Cohen was named alongside her husband, Benjamin Meltzer, in a state Supreme Court complaint filed on Tuesday by plaintiffs Amit and Jasmine Matta, the latter of whom called the 11th-floor rental in question their primary residence until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the complaint, the Mattas note they relocated to a temporary city residence during COVID’s early days for the sake of their daughter’s health and for that of Jasmine, who was recovering from cancer.

That unit appears to be one they own in Chelsea — a two-bedroom spread that Amit Matta purchased in 2005 for $1.4 million, according to city finance records, and tried most recently to rent out between May and November 2020 without success, StreetEasy records show. The Craigslist ad to sublet their furnished uptown unit, the complaint says, went live around November 2020.

Business Insider first reported news of the suit. Cohen declined to comment for this story.

Cohen is a New York Times contributor. “Defendant’s behavior is rich with irony and hypocrisy since the rent the Defendants refuse to pay is less than the current rental market value of Plaintiff’s Residence,” the complaint reads.

In late 2020, Cohen and Meltzer responded to the ad saying they needed refuge from their nearby rent-stabilized home due to impending construction set to take place outside which, according to July 2022 Department of Buildings after-hours variance records, remains ongoing. (Meanwhile, Department of Transportation records show the block upon which the subtenants’ temporary residence stands has ongoing work of its own, including ConEd performing a gas installation with a permit valid until September.)

Cohen and Meltzer agreed to pay $2,999 per month and all utilities, according to the complaint, all while continuing to pay rent on their primary home.

The reason for Cohen and Meltzer’s move, as the complaint details: They have a hearing disorder called hyperacusis, which can make seemingly ordinary noises — in this case, those from construction — feel unbearably loud.

Sometime after Cohen and Meltzer moved in, the complaint adds, the building landlord and superintendent knocked on the door. The arranged sublet for the rental apartment, per the landlord — who Insider notes separately sued the Mattas and Cohen in December — was illegal, and the landlord would begin a legal action as a result.

The complaint centers on a building on the Upper West Side, which is otherwise known for rows of historic townhouses.
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‘For the last two months they have put rent payments on hold as we attempted to settle with Jasmine and Amit, who admit they sublet their apartment without the landlord’s permission.’

Jeffrey McAdams, attorney for Cohen and Meltzer, told The Post

The Mattas say in the complaint that they “implored” the couple to move out to spare themselves an impending lawsuit — but Cohen and Meltzer not only allegedly refused to do that, but also said they wouldn’t pay any more than $2,558 per month, or what their attorney said was the “legal rent,” the complaint adds. The Mattas also said in their complaint that Cohen was aware that the landlord could sue for an unapproved sublease when she entered into the agreement.

“Thereafter [Cohen and Meltzer] continued to live for free, stopped paying any rent to [the Mattas] and did not make any rent payments to the landlord,” the complaint says. It adds the “scheme to live for free” was allegedly made worse by Cohen’s “extensive real estate knowledge and real estate connections” due to her column in the Times.

“Defendant’s behavior is rich with irony and hypocrisy since the rent the Defendants refuse to pay is less than the current rental market value of Plaintiff’s Residence,” says the complaint.

Communications between Cohen and Meltzer and the Mattas, as cited in the complaint, also show the subtenants began paying rent into an escrow account, but allegedly stopped depositing rent payments into it due to a dispute over attorney’s fees. However, the complaint doesn’t specify when the rent payments allegedly stopped, how much is allegedly due — or how the minimum $35,000 in damages are split between rent and other costs.

The neighborhood also is home to apartment housing.
Christopher Sadowski for NY Post

“After renting this apartment on an emergency basis to escape construction-related noise injuries, Joyce and Ben discovered that the overtenants sublet to them under false pretenses. The landlord stopped accepting rent and [the Mattas] now live in their condominium,” Jeffrey McAdams, the attorney representing Cohen and Meltzer, told The Post in a statement, referring to the Chelsea property.

McAdams added that Cohen was depositing money into his escrow account on an ongoing basis. 

“On my advice, for the last two months they have put rent payments on hold as we attempted to settle with Jasmine and Amit, who admit they sublet their apartment without the landlord’s permission,” McAdams said in the statement. “The tenants refuse to settle and instead are continuing an ongoing pattern of harassing and threatening to injure Joyce and Ben.”

(The complaint additionally details allegations from the subtenants that Jasmine intended “to come through the apartment with a bullhorn,” which the complaint doesn’t admit as true. Amit Matta told Insider that he and his wife “completely deny” that.)

The complaint further charges that Cohen and Meltzer refused to move out despite the Mattas offering them an alternate solution for their needs.

Still, communication from Cohen and Meltzer’s attorney cited in the complaint says, “[Jasmine] thinks Joyce and Ben want to take her home from them; they do not. They need to be in walking distance of their home [nearby] but are willing to move if Amit finds a place that is quiet enough for their needs and larger than a studio.”

Records indicate other issues in this apartment’s history — a seemingly existing bitter relationship between the Mattas and their landlord — in the form of previous violations that appear to have been reported by the Mattas and handed down by the city Department of Housing Preservation & Development to the landlord. They include one that documented a roach infestation throughout the apartment. Another detailed peeling lead paint from a door frame. These have since been resolved.

An Upper West Side townhouse.
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This week’s Supreme Court filings also include an exhibit, whose first section under a “Roommate Agreement” heading says tenancy provides two years of “full and unrestricted access” to the property between Jan. 15, 2021 until Jan. 14, 2023 — unless Cohen were to give 30 days of notice to Matta to forfeit those rights.

“If [Cohen] delivers such notice it is understood that [Matta] may seek to find another individual to share the property or possibly sublet the space,” it says. “To support this, [Matta] may wish to show the unit to other individuals and [Cohen] agrees to facilitate such visitations provided a minimum of 24 hours notice.”

The ninth section of that agreement, meanwhile, says Cohen and Matta agreed to making reversible modifications to the home, including the installation of Plexiglas sound barriers, in an apparent nod to the couple’s noise sensitivities. As of July 5, the complaint adds, Cohen and Meltzer have not moved out.

The Mattas intended to offer the subtenants a two-year sublease — and in a statement, the family says there are “many other” interactions they didn’t document in the complaint.

“I can’t understand why they are still in our place when they were prepared to leave on July 5,” Jasmine told The Post in a statement. “So our place no longer offers a needed cover for their safety and health — it’s just an issue about money. We just want to ensure they pay the rent owed so we can hand it over to the landlord.”

A spokesperson for the New York Times, in response to a message seeking comment, told The Post: “We’re aware of the lawsuit and are looking into it.” The building landlord, Great Neck-based Vision Enterprises Management, declined to comment. Jennifer Rozen, a lawyer who’s representing the Mattas in the building’s lawsuit, didn’t return a request for comment.