How I became a plaintiff: Red Herrings, negotiations and Proprietary Leases

…In dirty upper casements here and there, hazy little patches of candle light reveal where some wise draughtsman and conveyancer yet toils for the entanglement of real estate in meshes of sheepskin, in the average ration of about a dozen of sheep to an acre of land. — Charles Dickens, Bleak House

When I signed my apartment lease in the 1960’s, my friends hooted with derision: the initial rent for my one room was an obscene $125 a month. They, my friends, lived in multiple rooms for no more than $83.42 a month. They all moved on; I didn’t.

Neither did my $125 rent, until it did, to $138.76, where it remained for decades until it was raised to $168.23 and rested there for what passes as eternity in New York City. There’s a lot you can do in NYC when your rent is $168.23 a month. You can, for instance, become a writer.

In the early 1980s, the out-of-town owner, whom we tenants had never met, put the building on the market. It was purchased by Blondy Swanson and Joel Duffle, a wealthy couple from Coral Gables, Florida. They took over an apartment as their New York pied-à-terre and collected our controlled and stabilized rents.

After Joel and Blondy tried to evict me and failed, we all settled down to being friends. I became especially fond of Joel who, with characteristic (pseudo?) ingenuous ebullience, approached us tenants one day with an exciting idea: let’s become a co-op! It’ll be fun! And to save us money, Joel said, we can all use their lawyer!


Then one day our mailboxes bulged with fat envelopes containing what is known as a “red herring,” the detailed proposal for a co-operative in which our small apartments were allotted purchase prices. Mine was $135,000. Joel’s lawyer who sent us the red herring was New York City’s most notorious landlord attorney, i.e., the incarnation of evil.

We tenants hired our own lawyer, New York City’s most famous tenant lawyer, i.e., the incarnation of the greatest good. Then we sicced our guys on their guys.

A number of years and histrionic manifestations later, the negotiations concluded. On our closing date in February 1988, four of us erstwhile tenants sat around a big table with lawyers, bankers and Joel and Blondy, proffered our checks on demand and signed whatever documents were thrust at us.

My final purchase price, a significant discount from $135,000, was $36,000. I now held 328 shares of a corporation that owned a West Village townhouse, and had become a minority shareholder in the Little Crooked House Tenants Corporation at a monthly maintenance of $328.

We departed the closing, each carrying with us a lumpen “fully executed” thing called “The Proprietary Lease,” which contained our leases and the rules and stuff that would be governing the co-op. It was not an inviting pile of paper – dense with single-spaced paragraphs and sub-paragraphs and sub-sub-paragraphs, and printed on both sides of the paper.

Now that I had in my possession what I had been told was a valuable document, I opened a safe deposit box, which turned out to be too small for the Proprietary Lease. I stuffed it in, anyway, and did not think about again for quite a while.

That was my first mistake.


  • I regret to inform you it’s too late to buy a beautiful studio apartment in the West Village for $36,000.
  • Do not sign any legal document without reading it. If you find it impossible to concentrate on it (and oh you will!), invite friends over and have an oral presentation. To keep yourself awake during the reading, drink coffee and take those outline-notes my mother taught me about.
  • Rent a medium-size safe deposit box. Aside from the Proprietary Lease, something will come along to fill it.
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