A few days after losing his job in March, Paul Gentile was throwing away trash outside his Brooklyn apartment building when he noticed a new sign hanging near the front door.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought life to a near standstill in New York City and caused an untold number of people to lose their jobs, tenants in the building did not need to pay April rent, it read.
“STAY SAFE, HELP YOUR NEIGHBORS & WASH YOUR HANDS!!!” the landlord, Mario Salerno, wrote on the signs, which he posted at all of his 18 residential buildings in the borough.
More than any large city in the United States, New York is made up of millions of renters, many of whom survive paycheck to paycheck and pay a large portion of their monthly income for a place to live.
The sudden collapse of the economy has left many New Yorkers stressing about how they can pay their bills, especially rent.
Across New York City, landlords have started to panic as well, as it has become clear some tenants are unable to afford rent. Several surveys conducted last month estimated that 40 percent of renters in New York City, if not more, would not make April rent, which was due on Wednesday.
The trickle-down effect could be swift and devastating, according to landlords, leaving them scrambling to find ways to pay their own bills, such as water, sewer and taxes at their buildings.
It is too soon to get an accurate gauge of how many renters withheld their April rent and what the fallout would be for landlords.
But Mr. Salerno said in an interview on Thursday that he did not care about losing his rental income in April, nor did he care to calculate the amount that he would not be collecting from his 80 apartments. He said he had about 200 to 300 tenants in total.
He is likely forgoing hundreds of thousands of dollars in income by canceling April rent.
His only interest, he said, was in alleviating stress for his renters, even those who were still employed and now working from home.
“My concern is everyone’s health,” said Mr. Salerno, 59, whose rent gesture was first reported by the local news site Greenpointers.com. “I told them just to look out for your neighbor and make sure that everyone has food on their table.”
Mr. Salerno said a handful of his tenants messaged him last month saying that they could not afford rent. Three renters from Ireland packed up a few belongings and moved back home, he said.
When Mr. Gentile spotted the sign last week, he said he was surprised but not shocked. For the nearly four years Mr. Gentile has lived in the apartment, Mr. Salerno has been a model landlord.
Emergencies are fixed almost immediately, he said, such as a water leak in Mr. Gentile’s ceiling that was fixed, patched and painted within several hours.
“You don’t see that, especially in a landlord-tenant relationship in New York City,” Mr. Gentile, 28, said. “He’s amazing.”
As New York City started to shut down in mid-March, Mr. Gentile quickly lost his job. He was a lawyer for a personal injury firm who spent most of his time in courthouses, all of which were closed on March 18. There was little work for him outside the courtroom.
The law firm’s partners told him that they hope to rehire him when the economy rebounds, he said. But without a job and rent almost due, Mr. Gentile spent the end of March stressing about using his savings for bills, including what he and his fiancée had reserved for their wedding in November.
“It has alleviated a huge amount of stress that I have been having with the unemployment system in the state,” he said, adding that he had called the New York State Department of Labor roughly 240 times over two days in March to finally connect with a person to file for benefits.
For decades, Mr. Salerno has been a larger-than-life character in his part of Williamsburg, on the other side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway from the ritzy high-rises near the East River. During the day, he runs the Salerno Auto Body Shop and gasoline station, which his father opened in 1959.
In the 1980s, Mr. Salerno started to buy vacant lots across Brooklyn to store cars damaged in accidents before they were repaired. In the late 1990s, he started to turn 18 of the lots into apartment buildings.
The repair shop and station are both open, though gasoline sales are down about half from a month ago, he said. He would prefer not to be working on people’s cars during the pandemic, but wanted to be there for his customers.
“Do I really want to do a simple oil change and a brake job?” Mr. Salerno said on the phone at the auto shop on Thursday. “No, but I have a lot of doctors and nurses who need their cars serviced.”