Renters' Rights 101
Not all landlords are necessarily evil, but there are often stories of those who illegally withhold services to raise rents or to demolish buildings for newer development projects. Or worse, the landlord’s team of lawyers face the tenant — often alone — in court for a variety of reasons. Almost half of the time, the tenant loses and is evicted.
Even with the current $62 million devoted to this fiscal year to help tenants facing eviction, more than 70 percent of low-income tenants in the City go to court unrepresented. However, the New York City Council is currently reviewing a bill that would guarantee legal protection for low-income tenants — anyone whose income is less than twice the federal poverty line — facing eviction.
Such a bill would not only save New York City over $300 million in costs by keeping over five thousand families out of homeless shelters, but also add to the already strong protections that tenants are guaranteed in New York City. In fact, with winter coming around the corner, knowing one’s tenant rights is important to make sure one is properly treated.
According to the New York Attorney General, here are a few basic pointers:
What it means: Applied to residential buildings constructed before February 1947 in municipalities that did not declare an end to the post war rental housing emergency, the tenant or the tenant’s lawful successor (family member, spouse, etc.) must have lived there continuously since before July 1, 1971 for an apartment to be under rent control. Rent control not only limits an owner’s rent charge for an apartment, but also the right of the owner to evict tenants. In New York City though, rent controlled apartments have a maximum base rent that is adjusted every two years to keep up with operating costs.
What you can do: Tenants living in rent controlled apartments have the ability to challenge these increases if the rent charged exceeds the legal regulated rent, the building violates housing codes, the owner’s expenses do not warrant an increase, or if the owner is not maintaining basic services.
What it means: Rent stabilization sets limits on annual rent increases, which changes year to year as established by the New York City Rent Guidelines Board. Apartments in New York CIty are generally rent stabilized if they meet three conditions. First, if the apartment is in a building with six or more units built between February 1, 1947 and December 31, 1973. Second, if the apartment is in a building built before February 1, 1947 with tenants who moved in after June 30, 1971. And third, if the apartment is in a building with three or more apartments constructed or renovated on or after January 1, 1974 with special tax benefits (such as the now-defunct 421-a).
What you can do: Be sure you are not getting duped. Tenants in rent stabilized apartments are entitled to a one or two year renewal lease, and the owner may only refuse to renew the lease in specific circumstances. Owners are required to maintain essential services for tenants in rent stabilized apartments.
For families members living in rent controlled or rent stabilized apartments, it is possible to succeed a tenant of record who dies or permanently vacates. These succession rights are regulated, and allow a "family member" (defined as spouse, immediate family members, and in-laws just to name a few) or any other person residing with tenant to succeed the tenant of record, as long as that individual can prove emotional and financial commitment. The individual must have also lived with the tenant for no less than two years (in the case of seniors and disabled persons, the requirement is only one year) or if the tenancy or relationship started less than two years.
Warranty of Habitability
What it means: Tenants have the right to a safe, livable, and sanitary apartment. This includes heat or regular access to hot water, and properly addressed insect problems. Public areas of the building, such as the lobby, courtyards, or entrances are also covered by the warranty. However, if the problem is caused by the tenant, then it is not considered a breach of the warrant of habitability.
What you can do: If the warranty of habitability is breached by the landlord, then the tenant has the option to sue for rent reduction. The tenant may also file a rent reduction complaint to the Department of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR) no less than 10 days and no more than 60 days after the tenant has communicated with the landlord in writing about the problem. There are many other circumstances such as deducting repair costs if the tenant made the necessary repairs, or cancellation of the lease if the lease doesn’t say otherwise in event of a fire or other damage where the tenant is not at fault.
Protection from Lead Paint
What it means: Landlords of multiple apartments must inspect the apartment for lead paint hazards. Apartments built before 1960, in those built between 1960 and 1978 where the landlord knows lead-based paint was used, and where a child under 7 years old lives must be properly inspected. If there are lead hazards, areas where lead based paint is peeling must be entirely covered up or removed completely — this work must be done by workers who have completed a training course on lead-safe work practices. Landlords are required to document such work and notices, and must provide tenants with NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene pamphlets regarding lead.
What you can do: Besides telling your landlord to fix the problem, you can call 311 to check the situation if your landlord refuses. NYC Housing Preservation and Development will contact your landlord to remedy the situation, and if your landlord refuses, HPD will make the necessary repairs and bill your landlord. Failure to address lead-safety problems is a breach in the warrant of habitability.
What it means: October 1st through May 31st is heating season, when heat must be supplied to tenants. Each apartment must be heated to a temperature that is at least 68°F when the outdoor temperature is under 55°F between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. If the outdoor temperature is below 40°F between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., 55°F is the minimum temperature in which each apartment must be heated. Tenants are entitled to regular hot water, which must be at least 120°F, or between 110°F and 120°F if an anti-scald valve is present.
What you can do: The utility service must give advanced written notice to you and certain agencies if it were to discontinue service, due to the landlord’s lack of utility service payments, but cannot discontinue service if you pay the landlord’s bill directly to the utility company. You could deduct these charges from future rent payments. The Public Service Commission can assist you with these problems, and lack of heating or access to hot water is a breach in the warrant of habitability.
Landlord’s Duty of Repair
What it means: Landlords of multiple apartments are required to keep the apartments — including the building’s public areas — clean and free of vermin and garbage. Basic services must be in good working order, and repairs must be addressed in a reasonable time period.
What you can do: Notify local housing officials if problems are not being properly addressed.
In general, landlords are required to ensure the building’s basic maintenance. From addressing basic security problems such as door locks to ensuring smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in each apartment, you should always contact your landlord first if something isn’t safe or functioning properly. Keep all of the documentation of the process — certified mailing receipts if you’re mailing anything, pictures and receipts of related property, written agreements. Withholding rent or going to court is definitely a risky strategy that you would definitely need legal advice for. But New York City protects its tenants and landlords are often more than willing to work things out — just know that you are entitled to basic protections.