Imagine having $25 million but being denied an apartment because you’re self-employed — so the landlord thinks you can’t pay rent. For one of Adam Frisch’s clients, this really happened. Frisch is managing principal at Lee & Associates Residential NYC, one of many New York City brokerages that connects would-be tenants with available units. His client was self-employed because he’d recently taken his startup public on the NASDAQ exchange. The landlord’s broker denied his application because he didn’t have an employer letter.
In a city with more than 3.4 million apartments but 8.39 million people, finding a home can be tough, no matter how much money you have. It’s not supply and demand, so much as the seemingly insane requirements landlords have for approval. For starters, there’s 40X — broker slang for an annual salary at or above 40 times monthly rent. To explain, take an apartment that rents for $3,667 per month , the Manhattan average. With 40X, the landlord wouldn’t accept renters who make less than $146,680 a year. Others make tenants pay the whole year’s rent up front, want a guarantor to cosign the lease, or even ask applicants to provide copies of all personal stockholdings.
In light of requirements like these, asking for a letter from a tenant’s employer doesn’t seem quite that outlandish. But for freelance workers, this can be impossible. From Uber drivers to construction laborers to writers, 40 percent of New York’s labor force is self-employed.
It’s a work arrangement many love, with 61 percent freelancing by choice. Independents control their own schedules, can work remote, and — since taxes aren’t pulled from their checks — actually have higher take-home pay (although they do pay estimated tax once a quarter). But they have a harder time than employed workers finding somewhere to live.
“It is a huge challenge unless you have tons of cash in the bank,” said Caitlin Pearce, the executive director of Freelancers Union, an advocacy group representing more than 57 million independent workers nationwide.
New York City Fair Housing Laws clearly state landlords can’t discriminate against applicants or “unfairly limit the[ir] housing choices” based off how they earn their money — so long as their work is legal. But Pearce says members do complain to Freelancers Union about landlords who require employer letters, ask financial guarantors cosign their lease, or demand more cash up front “even when their actual income would qualify them for the lease.” In other words, even if a freelancer makes the required 40X, the bar is still higher.
“It may feel like discrimination if a freelancer finds him or herself repeatedly rejected,” said Ruth Shin, CEO at PropertyNest, a site that lets people search not by listing, but by the applicant requirements they meet. She and Frisch both say discrimination’s not the goal. New York landlords’ greatest fear is leasing an apartment to someone who doesn’t pay.
“Unfortunately, sometimes when there are long periods of no work or pay discrepancies for freelancers, this can negatively affect their chances for approval,” Shin said. Even though employees can get fired or laid off, landlords see freelance income as vulnerable. “In more conservative parts of the country, it's not very hard to evict somebody,” said Frisch, but in New York, it can take six to eight months: “That's more than half of a year's income.”
More than 11 percent of New York apartments are empty or “scarcely occupied,” according to the Daily News. More than 100,000 could be earning money today, if they were rented. Only 9,600 are tied up in court.
“To some, even a longterm a freelance position can come across as risky,” said Kala Wilkins, marketing manager for TheGuarantors, a company that charges freelancers 4.75 to 7.5 percent of annual rent to cosign their lease. “Landlords are motivated to protect themselves, and using the stability of finances to do so by requiring a letter of employment isn't seen as discriminatory.”
If that sounds in conflict with Fair Housing Laws, Frisch is quick to point out employer letters don’t actually have to come from employers. Freelancers can provide accountant letters verifying income. “An accountant letter is an employment letter,” he said. “It's verifying employment of another kind than someone who's employed by a third party.”
Frisch said brokers who won’t accept accountant letters are likely newer to the profession or bad at their jobs: “A lot of them don't see nuance.” And this nuance would tell you a self-employed millionaire is capable of paying rent. But don’t think money necessarily gets you in: Frisch also said someone could earn $400,000 a year, but be so “difficult to work with that I don't care what their employment letter says. Again, people who do this right and who know how to represent landlords understand the nuance.” In a city this large, that’s exactly what it takes to see past criteria checklists and match apartments with the right tenant. “Certainly, within the nuance of any leasing transactions,” he said, “there's plenty of room for self-employed individuals.”
As for those who do discriminate, freelancers can complain to the Law Enforcement Bureau of the NYC Commission on Human Rights. The Freelancers Union doesn’t advocate in this area, but Anh-Thu Nguyen, director of special projects for Democracy at Work Institute, said freelance cooperatives “could write an employer letter on behalf of the cooperative member.”
Meanwhile, Shin said, “I don’t expect landlords to drop having qualifiers for prospective tenants even as the number of freelancers grows, but the types of financial qualifiers and documentation can change and be expanded.” Brokers themselves are freelancers, so Frisch said it’s in their best interest to help landlords be more freelance-friendly. And while checklist brokers are out there, Shin noted many have started accepting employer letter alternatives, like copies of client contracts or 1099s and that accountant statement Frisch mentioned.
The freelance population is growing, with Freelancers Union projecting the majority of Americans will work independently by 2027. As it does — and as those 100,000-plus apartments sit empty — landlords may gradually learn to bend with the times. As Sarah Johnson, public relations director for broker site TheClose.com, said, “New York City landlords ask for employment letters for the same reason they ask for bank statements and tax returns: Because they can.”
In other words, Fair Housing Laws or not, until freelancers find a way to change the dynamic, they have to rent under current market conditions — no matter how much they make.