The Renter's Handbook
by Sen. Manfred Ohrenstein
I am pleased to make available this third edition of the Renter's Handbook. The following pages contain summaries of tenant's rights, common problems encountered by tenants and tips on how to protect your rights and solve the problems.
The laws governing landlord-tenant relationships have evolved over many decades and are extremely complex. Because of this, there is a continual need for an understandable and up-to-date guide to tenants' rights in New York City. I hope that you will keep this booklet handy and that it will he useful to you.
In Albany, I have devoted three decades to the fight for better housing and stronger protections for tenants. Over the years, we have achieved many victories. The statutory rights to sublet and to have roommates, the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption Program and the Warranty of Habitability Law are just a few of the advances made by tenants through legislation. I am continuing to work for the enactment of other pending legislation that would protect tenants of institutions from eviction, limit major capital improvement rent increases, restrict the warehousing of vacant apartments by landlords and toughen penalties for the harassment of tenants.
On November 8, 1989 we made a major advance when Governor Cuomo announced new regulations to extend tenancy rights to non- traditional family members living in rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments. Please carefully read the section of this handbook entitled "Succession Rights" to learn how you can use these new regulations to protect yourself and those you live with from eviction in, case the person named on the lease should die or move out of the apartment.
If you would like further information about my legislative program or assistance with a personal housing problem, please feel free to call my district office. The office staff has a great deal of expertise in working with tenants and solving housing problems. If your tenants' organization would like a speaker for a meeting, I would be pleased to schedule a date with
Senator Manfred Ohrenstein
270 Broadway - Room 612
New York, New York 10007
[ed note: Senator Ohrenstein retired 12/31/94; He was succeeded by Senator Catherine Abate]
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Rent Control and Stabilization
Warranty of Habitability
Major Capital Improvements
Owner's Personal Use
Heat and Hot Water
Painting, Extermination, Superintendents and Pets
Reaching A Decision
A tenant moving into a rent stabilized apartment for the first time has the option of choosing either a one- or a two-year lease, and the landlord is required to abide by the tenant's choice.
The landlord must send you prior notice at least 150 and not less than 120 days before the lease is due to expire. This notice must be sent on a standard form issued by the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), designated "RPT-8". You must respond to this notice within 60 days of receiving it, choosing either a one- or two-year renewal lease. Your response will constitute a renewal lease. It is a good idea to make and keep a copy of this form before you send it back to the landlord.
The rent adjustment for your initial lease and each subsequent renewal must be within the limits announced by the Rent Guidelines Board. This agency is appointed by the Mayor and sets rent guidelines that change every year. The guidelines are announced each year about July 1, and affect new and renewal leases that take effect on or after the following October 1. For the period extending from October 1, 1989 until September 30, 1990 the guidelines allow increases of 5.5% for a one-year lease and 9% for a two-year lease, with an additional 12% vacancy allowance added to a new lease. Also, some tenants renting apartments for less than $325 per month can be charged an extra $5 monthly rent increase.
By law, leases must be written in "plain English", and both new and renewal leases must have attached a detailed description of tenant's rights. This is also printed on a standard form known as the DHCR Lease Rights Rider. The rent paid by the prior tenant must also be shown on the rider attached to a new lease.
If your original lease was written in "legalese", it is important to check that subsequent plain English renewals contained the same terms and conditions as the original.
Renewal leases are not permitted to reduce any rights granted under the first lease.
Rent controlled tenants generally do not have leases, and are considered "statutory tenants" who have the right to remain in their apartments for as long as they choose.
Rent increase orders are sent to rent controlled tenants at the start of each year, establishing the maximum collectible rent for the apartment and charges that are allowable for fuel and labor costs. These orders will be sent by mail under the supervision of the DHCR. If there is a dispute regarding the rent, the DHCR is responsible for resolving the dispute.
Under the Omnibus Housing Act of 1983, owners were required to register the rent of every rent stabilized apartment with the DHCR by July 1, 1984. That initial registration also included a detailed record of all services provided in the building.
Landlords are also required to update the registration statements every year. This information must be made available to tenants for a period of up to four years prior to the date of a tenant's request for a rent history. You should check the accuracy of the annual registration statements that you receive and keep them for your records.
The rent registration system is intended to make it easier for a tenant to ascertain the correct rent for his or her apartment and should reduce rent overcharging by landlords.
The laws guarantee refunds to rent controlled and stabilized tenants who are overcharged on their rents. The amount of the refund is determined according to the tenant's classification.
For RENT STABILIZED tenants:
Tenants filing complaints after April 1, 1984 are entitled to refunds of all overcharges for a period of four years prior to the date the overcharge complaint is filed. If the overcharge is determined to be willful, an amount equal to three times the amount of the overcharge must be refunded to the tenant; however, the treble damage penalty is limited to two years of the overcharge. Tenants are also eligible for interest payments and attorney's fees.
For RENT CONTROLLED tenants:
Rent controlled tenants are entitled to a refund of overcharges for the prior two years from the date the complaint is filed. They may also sue in court for up to three times the amount of the overcharges.
The Division of Housing and Community Renewal is required to resolve all rent overcharge disputes involving both rent controlled and rent stabilized tenants.
Rent Control And Stabilization
You are probably a rent controlled tenant if (a) your building was constructed before 1947, (b) you moved into your apartment before July 1, 1971 and (c) your building contains three or more housing units. Rent controlled tenants are also called statutory tenants.
You are probably a rent stabilized tenant if (a) your building was constructed before January 1,1974, (b) you signed your initial lease or a renewal lease after July 1,1971 and (c) your building contains six or more housing units.
Buildings first occupied after January 1,1974 are frequently subject to the rent stabilization law if they received property tax benefits under either the 421-a or the J-51 tax programs.
The 421-a program affects new construction. In buildings that were occupied before July 3,1984 tenants will retain their rent stabilized status even after the 10 year tax benefit period expires. After the 10 year period expires, new tenants are not rent stabilized. In 421-a buildings first occupied after July 3,1984 tenants lose their stabilized status at the end of the tax benefit period if each lease and renewal has given notice of the approximate expiration date of the tax benefits and of rent stabilization coverage.
The program formerly known as J-51 affects buildings that were substantially rehabilitated. Tenants in such buildings will retain their rent stabilized status beyond the end of the tax benefit period, unless each lease and renewal has given notice of the approximate expiration date of the tax benefits and of rent stabilization coverage.
Before you sign a new lease, you should examine the lease and any riders carefully to see if notice is given of the expiration of a tax benefit period and that the apartment will no longer be covered by rent regulation after such time.
Rent stabilized tenants have the right to sublet under New York State Law, provided they follow certain procedures. Any lease clause that prohibits a rent stabilized tenant from subletting is automatically invalid and may be disregarded.
Rent controlled tenants are prohibited from subletting their apartments unless the landlord agrees to the sublet in writing, or unless the right to sublet was specifically included as part of the original lease.
In order to sublet your apartment, you must notify your landlord in writing, and send your notice by certified mail, return receipt requested. In your notice you must include the following information:
-- the name of the subtenant;
-- the date the sublease takes effect and the date it terminates;
-- the business address and the permanent home address of the subtenant;
-- your reason for wanting to sublet;
-- your address for the duration of the sublease;
-- if the prime lease was guaranteed by a third party, the written consent of the guarantor;
-- if the apartment is occupied by a co-tenant, the written consent of the co-tenant;
-- a copy of the sublease, attached to a copy of the prime lease, with a notarized statement signed by you and the subtenant attesting that it is a true copy of the sublease.
In stating your reason for wanting to sublet, you must make it clear that your absence will be temporary and that you intend to return to the apartment as your primary residence, or the landlord will have a valid ground to refuse your sublet request.
Once you have mailed this notice, the landlord has 10 days from the date you mailed the notice in which to ask for additional information. You may be asked to complete a questionnaire about yourself and the subtenant. While such a questionnaire is permissible. it may not be unduly burdensome by asking irrelevant questions.
If no further information is asked of you, the landlord must respond to your notice within 30 days of the date it was mailed. If additional information is requested within the initial 10-day period, the landlord must respond within 30 days of the date the additional information is mailed.
A landlord who does not respond within this timetable is considered to have consented automatically to the sublet.
A landlord may not withhold consent unreasonably. Reasonable cause for denying a sublet request includes the inability of the subtenant to pay the rent; a subtenant with a history of disruptive behavior; or an intention to use an apartment in an unlawful manner.
If a landlord does withhold consent unreasonably, you may proceed to sublet without his or her consent, or you may contest the decision in court. The law requires the landlord to reimburse you for legal costs, including attorney fees, if you can demonstrate that your landlord acted in bad faith.
If you sublease an apartment with furnishings, a surcharge of up to 10 percent above the legal rent may be added. You may not collect more than the legal rent. A prime tenant who overcharges a subtenant is subject to a rent overcharge complaint requiring that a penalty equal to three times the amount of the overcharge be refunded.
No apartment may be sublet for longer than two years out of any four-year period. Furthermore, a tenant who does not intend to return to the apartment is prohibited from assigning the lease to a new tenant unless the landlord's written consent is obtained, or unless the lease specifically permits assignment.
A tenant living alone in either a rent controlled or rent stabilized apartment may invite an additional occupant, and the dependent children of the occupant, to share an apartment. An unlimited number of the tenant's immediate family members are also permitted to share the apartment.
If two or more people signed a lease, a new occupant may replace a departing tenant, however, the total number of tenants and occupants may not exceed the original number of people who signed the original lease. Most important, one of the original signers of the lease must continue to live in the apartment.
An important distinction is made in the law between tenants and occupants.
The tenant is the person or persons who signed the lease, and the occupant is the person who moves in after the lease is signed. The tenant retains the rights under the lease and is the only person who may renew a lease once it expires. (Please read the exceptions listed under Succession Rights). Once the tenant moves out of an apartment, the occupant loses the right to remain in the apartment without the expressed written consent of the landlord.
A landlord may not pry into the nature of a relationship between people who want to be roommates.
If you want to share your apartment, you should notify your landlord in writing within 30 days of the date your roommate moves in. If you fail to do that, you are required to respond to an inquiry by your landlord within 30 days of his or her asking whether a new occupant is living in the apartment.
The right to share your apartment is automatic, and a lease provision that restricts sharing is invalid and may not be enforced.
The following section on "Succession Rights" explains the circumstances under which a person who has been sharing an apartment may qualify to remain and obtain a lease even after the original tenant has died or moved out.
State regulations now allow persons sharing apartments as members of non-traditional families to have the same rights as traditional family members to remain in rent controlled apartments and to obtain renewal leases for rent stabilized apartments after the tenant of record has died or permanently vacated.
These "succession rights" are afforded to any person who has been living with the tenant as a primary resident and who is able to show a relationship with the tenant involving emotional and financial commitment and interdependence. To protect privacy, evidence of a sexual relationship may not be considered.
Many factors may be considered, including: the length of the relationship; the sharing of household expenses; intermingling of finances; engaging in family-type activities; formalizing legal obligations, such as wills naming each other as executor and/or beneficiary or having mutual powers of attorney; acting publicly as family members; and performing family functions such as caring for each other or each other's family members.
In addition, both traditional and non-traditional "family members" are required to have lived in the apartment with the tenant a minimum of two years (one year if the "family member" is disabled or sixty-two years old or older) or, if they have lived together a shorter time, from the beginning of the tenancy or of their relationship with the tenant.
Generally, a non-traditional family member will have the burden of proving that he or she had the required degree of commitment and interdependence with the tenant to qualify for succession rights. However, the burden can be shifted to the landlord to disprove such a relationship by taking a simple step. Obtain from the DHCR a form entitled "Notice To Owner Of Persons Other Than Tenant Residing In Apartment", complete it and send it to the landlord.
Any tenant wanting to protect the succession rights of a traditional or non-traditional family member should be sure to notify the landlord on the DHCR form and be sure the family member retains proof of such notification. (If you have more than one roommate, be sure that you are not indicating a violation of the Apartment Sharing rules explained in the previous section of this booklet.) If possible, have the landlord acknowledge receipt of the form and the date of receipt on a copy, or send it by certified mail return receipt requested.
Warranty Of Habitability
The Warranty of Habitability is an important section of the New York Real Property Law. It requires owners of buildings to keep their premises safe, clean and in good repair. Both the common areas of buildings and the interiors of apartments must be free of any condition that is detrimental to a person's health, life or safety.
Under the Warranty of Habitability, tenants frequently seek rent abatements by withholding rental payments, in order to get a service restored or a defective condition corrected. If there is a need for an emergency repair that the owner refuses to address, tenants may also contract privately to have the repair done, and then deduct the cost from the rent.
An owner's liability is limited, however, if the cause of the service disruption is the result of a labor dispute. If there is such a strike, and the owner reaps a profit as a result, a court may order the owner to "pass through" the saving to the tenant in the form of a one-time rent reduction.
Before a tenant withholds rent, it is advisable to consult an experienced tenant organizer, legislative office, or attorney in order to assure that the law is being properly applied.
The legal procedures available under the Warranty of Habitability are explained in greater detail in the section of this booklet entitled, "Your Remedies."
Harassment is the persistent denial or interruption of an essential service or services, such as heat or hot water, or abusive conduct by an owner [or an agent of the owner] which is threatening to a resident or is intended to get a resident to move out of his or her apartment.
If you are victimized by such conduct or an attempt is made to require you to give up certain of your legal rights, a finding of harassment may be reached by a court of law or an administrative agency.
There are tough penalties imposed on owners who harass tenants. Guidelines on how to obtain relief from harassing owners are explained in the section of this booklet entitled, "Your Remedies."
Major Capital Improvements
You have the right to contest a landlord's application to the DHCR for a major capital improvement (MCI) rent increase. If an application is made, you will receive a notice from the DHCR and be given an opportunity to review the landlord's complete application. You will have a thirty-day period within which to comment.
Major capital improvements are generally building-wide improvements such as a roof replacement, installation of a new boiler, repiping of the hot and cold water system, or rewiring throughout the building. The cost of asbestos abatement may be included, if done in conjunction with an MCI. Improvements to individual apartments are not considered MCI's, unless the same improvement is made in all apartments, like installation of new windows. Ordinary repairs or the restoration of a service previously provided will not qualify as MCI's.
MCI rent increases are limited to 6% per year for rent stabilized apartments and 15% per year for rent controlled apartments. These increases become a permanent part of the rent and are not eliminated when the landlord has recovered sufficient rent increases to pay for the costs of the MCI.
The DHCR will audit the landlord's proof of expenses. MCI requests are often reduced by the DHCR during such review. If you believe the proof is wrong or inadequate, you may raise an objection.
There are a number of other grounds for tenants to object to the landlord's MCI application. The application and the building should be carefully checked to see if all the work claimed was actually done, if the work was done poorly, or if the work done may not qualify as an MCI. Also, the item replaced must have exceeded its useful life according to a schedule published by the DHCR. The DHCR will only send one of its inspectors to look at the building if the tenants have raised an objection as to whether the work was done or as to the quality of the work.
In commenting on an MCI application, tenants should list all docket numbers of pending complaints of service reductions filed with the DHCR. Service reductions should also be detailed in the answer to the MCI application and may lead to dismissal of the application or postponement of the collectibility of any MCI rent increase.
Finally, check the room count given by the landlord for your apartment. The 1984 rent registration is not binding for this purpose. The definition for MCI purposes is contained in the landlord's application papers.
Tenants who live in buildings owned by nonprofit, educational or charitable organizations (such as a hospital, university, religious institution, etc.) have been placed under the protections of the rent stabilization system. These protections include limitations on rent increases and requirements for the delivery of essential services.
An organization may refuse to renew a lease in order to recover the apartment for non-residential, institution-related purposes, such as a classroom, conference hall, or laboratory. However, the organization must obtain the approval of the Buildings Department for the conversion from residential to non-residential use before the tenant may be evicted.
In certain instances, the organization may also refuse to renew a lease to recover an apartment for a residential purpose, but there are restrictions on an organization's ability to invoke this provision:
-- A tenant who moved into the building before the organization owned the building may not be refused a renewal lease.
-- A tenant who moved into a building with a nonprofit owner whose first lease started before July 1, 1978, and who was not informed at that time of the organization's right to recover the apartment, may not be refused a renewal lease.
A tenant who rents an apartment from a nonprofit organization, and whose occupancy is in conjunction with an affiliation with that organization (such as a student, employee, etc.) does not have the automatic right to renew a lease once that affiliation ends, unless it is with the expressed written consent of the organization.
A nonprofit organization must give at least four months prior notice to the tenant when it seeks to recover an apartment for either a non-residential or residential purpose. Any organization that fraudulently uses this provision of law to empty an apartment will be subject to heavy financial penalties, including an award to the tenant equal to three times the damages sustained from increased rental payments, moving expenses and attorney fees.
Owner's Personal Use
An owner who seeks an apartment for his own use, or the use of a member of his immediate family, may refuse to renew the lease of a rent stabilized tenant or apply to the DHCR to evict a rent controlled tenant
Rent controlled tenants may not be evicted where any member of the household is 62 years of age or older, disabled, or has been a tenant in the same building for 20 years or more.
The law restricts an owner's right to recover an apartment from a rent stabilized tenant:
-- the owner, or family member, must intend to use the apartment as his or her residence in New York City;
-- if there are multiple owners of the building, only one may initiate an owner's personal use proceeding (there is no limit, however, on the number of units that may be recovered);
-- if the building is owned by a partnership or corporation, the owner's personal use provision may not be invoked.
No personal use proceeding may be initiated against a stabilized tenant if the tenant or spouse is 62 years of age or older, unless the tenant has been offered an equivalent or superior apartment at the same or lower rent in the surrounding area. The same prohibition applies to disabled tenants.
The apartment may not be used for any purpose other than the owner's personal residence, or the residence of a family member, for a minimum of three years. If the apartment is re-rented within that period, the owner will be liable to a forfeiture of all rent increases in the building for a period of three Years.
The Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption Program prohibits rent increases for many senior citizens who live on fixed and limited incomes. This program is available for both rent controlled and stabilized tenants. It is administered by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
To be eligible, you or your spouse must be at least 62 years old; the combined household income must not exceed $15,000 annually; and the rent must be greater than one-third of your disposable income.
If your income is greater than the maximum, it is advisable to check with HPD. Certain of your tax liabilities may be deductible, bringing your income within the guidelines.
Rent stabilized tenants are required to sign a two-year lease in order to be eligible for the program.
Heat And Hot Water
The heat season begins each year on October 1 and ends on May 31. During that time, an owner must provide heat according to the following schedule:
-- between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., if the temperature outdoors falls below 55 degrees, then the temperature inside your apartment must be maintained at 68 degrees;
-- between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., if the temperature outdoors falls below 40 degrees, then the temperature inside your apartment must be maintained at 55 degrees.
Furthermore, the hot water temperature must be maintained at 120 degrees, 24 hours per day, year round.
Tenants who want to make complaints about an insufficiency of heat or hot water should contact the HPD Central Complaints Office.
*All temperatures are given in Fahrenheit.
Your landlord may retain a security deposit equal to one month's rent. The only exception to this rule is for rent stabilized tenants who signed their first lease before May 29, 1974 and paid two months rent as security.
If you paid more than the legal amount, you are entitled to a refund.
If there are six or more apartments in your building, the landlord is required to place your security deposit in an interest-bearing bank account. You are entitled to know the name of the bank and the account number. If you make a request to the landlord, you are also entitled to annual interest payments on the account, although your landlord may deduct one percent of the amount to defray bookkeeping expenses.
When you sign a renewal lease, the landlord may increase the security deposit by the same amount as the increase in the monthly rent.
A landlord may enter your apartment only with good cause and at a time that is mutually convenient for the purpose of making repairs and inspecting for code violations. You may insist upon prior notice for these routine visits.
In the event of an emergency, however, a landlord may demand immediate access, or enter without your permission.
If you install new locks, your landlord is entitled to ask for a copy of the keys.
Painting, Extermination, Superintendents And Pets
Your landlord is required to paint your apartment every three years at his or her expense. Some landlords will negotiate an allowance to cover some or all of the cost, if the tenant arranges for the painting in off years.
Your landlord is required to take all steps necessary to keep your apartment and the public areas of the building free from infestation of roaches, mice, rats and other vermin. Appropriate services must be maintained to meet this health safety standard, including contracting with independent extermination services, if necessary.
If your building has nine or more units, a superintendent must live in the building, or within a 200-foot radius. In addition, the name and phone number of the superintendent must be posted in a conspicuous location in the building. If there are fewer than nine units in the building, a phone number of whom to call in the event of an emergency must be posted
Although most standard leases prohibit tenants from keeping pets, some landlords invoke this clause arbitrarily as a tactic to force a tenant to move or to collect a higher rent. These landlord abuses are now illegal. If you own a pet, and your landlord or superintendent has knowledge of that fact for three months or more, the "no pet" provision in your lease may not be used against you at a later date. If a pet causes damage, however, or becomes a nuisance, a landlord may still initiate an action against a tenant.
State law requires the Division of Housing and Community Renewal to assist tenants by maintaining district offices in each borough of New York City. These offices are staffed to assist tenants in obtaining information and processing complaints.
A directory of these offices and other administrative agencies that provide services to tenants is provided at the end of this booklet.
In addition, legislators and other public officials usually have staff trained to assist tenants.
Both rent controlled tenants and rent stabilized tenants should contact the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) for information about the housing laws, and for administrative relief in the event of a tenant-landlord dispute.
Tenants can initiate complaints with the DHCR on the following topics:
-- rent overcharges;
-- fair market rent appeals, contesting the first stabilized rent charged after a rent controlled apartment has been vacated;
-- review of the maximum base rent (MBR) and maximum collectible rent (MCR) for controlled apartments;
-- failure to renew or offer a renewal lease for a stabilized apartment;
-- harassment by an owner or agent;
-- reduction in rent because services are decreased (separate complaint forms are used, depending on whether the service decrease affects only an individual tenant or is building- wide);
-- reduction in rent because of failure to maintain heat and/or hot water;
When filing a complaint about a reduction in services or lack of heat and/or hot water, be sure to check the box on the form specifically requesting a rent reduction. All complaints must be filed in duplicate. Be sure to keep a copy of any complaint filed with the DHCR.
Complaint forms may be mailed or hand delivered to the borough rent offices or to the central DHCR office in Jamaica, Queens. If mailed, complaints should be sent by certified mail-return receipt requested to provide proof of delivery to the DHCR. If hand-delivered, have your copy date-stamped "received" at the DHCR office.
Once the complaint is received by the DHCR, a docket number will be assigned to the case. Thereafter, a rent examiner will contact both the person making the complaint and the landlord or managing agent of the building by mail for more information.
The forms for initiating complaints are available at the borough rent offices of the DHCR. They are often also available from the offices of State legislators.
The Division of Housing and Community Renewal is mandated to enforce the rent laws, and to respond to tenant-landlord disputes. Its powers include ensuring that rent overcharges are refunded (an earlier section of this handbook addresses rent overcharges), that services are maintained and that provisions of leases are enforced.
Because this is a quasi-judicial proceeding, it is important for the person making the complaint to be as thorough as possible in explaining the problem. However, a tenant does not need to submit proof when filing a complaint. A reasonable belief that a complaint is valid is sufficient reason for a tenant to submit a complaint form.
DHCR conducts a quasi-judicial proceeding in which a rent examiner gathers evidence from all parties to a dispute, and has the authority to require that all pertinent evidence in a case be submitted for consideration. Most cases are handled entirely by mail, occasionally hearings are scheduled. Tenants will be notified to appear in person, or with an attorney, for a conference shortly after filing harassment complaints.
If the person making the complaint fails to respond to a rent examiner's request for documentary evidence, the complaint may be dismissed. If a landlord fails to respond to a request for information refuting the complaint, the complaint may be granted on default. If you have complained about a reduction in services and you are notified about an inspection, be sure to give the DHCR inspector access to all affected apartments.
When the case is decided an "order" is issued. The losing side has the right to file a Petition for Administrative Review (PAR) to appeal the decision. A PAR must be filed within 35 days of the date the order was issued and it must be filed on the DHCR's PAR form.
Emergency problems demand fast action, and in these situations the administrative procedures will probably not be able to give you the quick solution you need. Under these circumstances, you may decide to seek legal redress in Housing Court.
If you must appear in Housing Court, you should consult an experienced tenant organizer, legislative office, or attorney in order to assure that your rights are protected and enforced.
Tenants appearing in Housing Court must be careful to document all aspects of the case being presented. Before going to court, you should explain the nature of your complaint to your landlord in writing, and mail the information via certified mail-return receipt requested. Keep copies of all correspondence!
If you get no response to your complaint and you believe it involves code violations, call the HPD Central Complaints Office and ask for an inspector to be sent to your apartment. The inspector will file a report on the visit which you can obtain from the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development's Division of Code Enforcement.
If your problem is visible, take photographs. If your complaint concerns insufficient heat, record the temperature both inside and outside your apartment. If other tenants have similar problems, ask them to join you in making the complaint.
You can initiate a legal proceeding yourself, or you can withhold payment of your rent as a device to force your landlord to take you to court. In either event, your tenancy will be protected, but it is important to follow the procedures explained in the following sections.
Withholding all or part of your rent is a common and accepted action that tenants undertake when a landlord is not providing required services, but it must be done carefully.
As explained earlier, you should notify your landlord in writing of your complaint, and allow a reasonable time for the situation to be corrected. This notification might also include a statement that you intend to withhold the next month's rent if the outstanding serious problems are not resolved.
If the problems persist and you go ahead and withhold rent, you will probably receive a "dispossess" notice, legally called a notice of petition and petition. This is not an eviction notice. It is your notification that the landlord is starting a non- payment proceeding in the Housing Court.
You must answer this notice within five days of receiving it. If you ignore a dispossess notice, you will lose your case by default and may be evicted.
Take the notice to the Housing Court located in the borough in which you live. Each Housing Court has an office of the Clerk of the Court, where you will receive a date for a hearing of your complaint.
On the date of the hearing, you must appear by 9:30 A.M. in the large room where the cases on the calendar are assigned. Your name will be called, at which time you must answer. If you have not had a recent inspection, you may obtain one by answering the call of the calendar, "tenant requests inspection." An inspection date will immediately be assigned and a later date will be assigned for you to return to the court. If you need an adjournment to another date, answer, "tenant application," and you can explain what you want. If you do not need an inspection or an adjournment, you should answer, "tenant ready."
You will then be assigned to a smaller hearing room where your case will be heard by a Housing Judge.
When you get to the smaller court room, tell the clerk you are ready. Present your case in a clear and concise manner, providing all of the documentation you have assembled. All of your comments should be addressed to the judge.
A tenant who does not want to withhold rent can initiate a legal proceeding (known as an "HP Action") by going to Housing Court and completing three forms: an Order to Show Cause, an Affidavit that details the complaint, and an Affidavit of Service stating you have served the other papers on your landlord. These forms are all available in the office of the Clerk of the Court, located at the Housing Court.
There is a $25 fee for processing these forms. If you cannot afford the fee, however, you can apply to have it waived.
The staff at the Clerk's office should help you fill out the forms and answer questions about the Housing Court. They are not there, however, to provide legal advice.
Once the three forms are completed, the Order to Show Cause will be submitted to and signed by a judge. It must then be served on both your landlord and the City's housing agency. The Clerk's office will tell you how to do this.
The Order to Show Cause will contain the date, time, and courtroom at which you and the landlord must appear for a hearing. The procedures are then the same as those explained in the previous section.
Reaching A Decision
There are several possible decisions a judge may reach in a tenant-landlord dispute, depending on the merits of your case.
You may be permitted to continue to withhold rent until the violations are corrected, or the judge may order that you deposit the rent money in an account maintained by the court. If the dispute concerns unresolved repairs, the judge may set a date by which the repairs must be completed.
In some instances, the judge may permit you to keep some or all of the withheld rent (called a "rent abatement") in order to compensate you for any inconvenience or hardship caused by the problem in your apartment.
If the judge feels there is no merit to your case, you may be directed to pay all of the withheld rent to your landlord. In this case, you will have a maximum of five days in which to make the payment. If you miss this deadline, you will be in default and may be evicted.
Whoever loses the case, may also be directed to pay the court costs of the winner.
Do not leave the court room until you are absolutely sure you understand the judge's decision. Don't hesitate to ask for further information or a clarification.
It is also important to remember that, although Housing Court is more informal than most, it is still a court of law. Judges are entrusted to arrive at solutions that assure that apartments are kept in good condition, that the rights and obligations of tenants and landlords are preserved, and that repairs are made quickly.
"There is strength in numbers!" That familiar adage is especially true in tenant-landlord disputes. The most effective way of ensuring that your rights are protected and your building maintained is for the tenants to establish a united, active tenants organization.
You have the legal right to organize, and landlords are prohibited by law from interfering with or retaliating against activist tenants.
There are numerous tenant groups throughout the City with expertise in helping to establish fledgling building organizations. They can give you pointers on how to set up an effective structure, develop a means of communicating with your neighbors, and further educate you about the rights and responsibilities you have as a New York City tenant.
Don't wait for a problem to materialize before you organize. A tenants organization is a good way to meet your neighbors, enhance the security of your building, and put your landlord on notice that you expect good service.
DIVISION OF HOUSING AND COMMUNITY RENEWAL
OFFICE OF RENT ADMINISTRATION
Gertz Plaza Office Building
92-31 Union Hall Street
Jamaica, New York 11433
Telephone Information: (718) 739-6400
DHCR informs rent controlled and rent stabilized tenants
about their rights under the State's housing laws, and
resolves tenant-landlord disputes through administrative
DHCR BOROUGH RENT OFFICES:
LOWER MANHATTAN OFFICE (south of 110th Street)
156 William Street, 9th Floor
New York, N.Y. 10038
UPPER MANHATTAN OFFICE
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building
163 West 125th Street, 5th Floor
New York, N.Y. 10027
One Pierrepont Plaza, 11th Floor
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201
Gertz Plaza Office Building
92-31 Union Hall Street
Jamaica, New York 11433
1 Fordham Plaza, 2nd Floor
Bronx, New York 10458
STATEN ISLAND OFFICE
350 St. Mark's Place, Room 105
Staten Island, N.Y. 10301
Rent Security Deposits -- Co-Op And Condo Conversions
ATTORNEY GENERAL (NYS Department of Law)
New York, N.Y. 10271
The Attorney General's office assists tenants in obtaining
interest on and return of security deposits. It reviews
offerings to convert buildings to co-ops and condominiums,
and provides tenants with information regarding their
Code Violations And Inspections
NYC DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING, PRESERVATION & DEVELOPMENT
CENTRAL COMPLAINTS BUREAU
215 West 125th Street
New York, N.Y. 10027
Central Complaints maintains a 24-hour hotline to receive
complaints about heat hot water and other housing code
DIVISION OF CODE ENFORCEMENT (Manhattan Office)
39 Broadway, 9th Floor,
New York, N.Y. 10006
Maintains a central registry of violations and inspection
reports on apartments, and receives complaints regarding non-
emergency code violations.
MANHATTAN CIVIL COURT/HOUSING DIVISION
111 Centre Street
New York, N .Y. 10013
Housing Court adjudicates disputes between landlords and
tenants in legal proceedings.
NYC DEPT. OF HOUSING PRESERVATION & DEVELOPMENT
CENTRAL INFORMATION UNIT
17 John Street,
New York, N.Y. 10038
The Central Information Unit provides information about HPD
programs and policies and information for tenants who must
appear in Housing Court.
Legal Advocacy For Low Income Tenants
COMMUNITY ACTION FOR LEGAL SERVICES (CALS)
New York, N.Y. 10013
LEGAL AID SOCIETY
15 Park Row
New York, N.Y. 10038
111 8th Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10001
MFY Legal Services
759 10th Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10019
(212) 581 -2810
35 Avenue A
New York, N.Y. 10009
223 Grand Street
New York, N.Y. 10013
Jewish Board Of Family And Children's Services
120 West 57th Street
New York, N.Y. 10019
Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Housing
NYC OFFICE FOR HOMELESS AND SRO HOUSING SERVICES
52 Chambers Street, Room 400
New York, N.Y. 10007
WEST SIDE SRO LAW PROJECT
593 Columbus Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10024
HPD Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption Program
APPLICATIONS AND INFORMATION
17 John Street
New York, N.Y. 10038
The phone numbers and addresses of these offices are in
effect as of December, 1989. Before visiting any of these
offices, it is advisable to phone beforehand to confirm the
location, as some addresses may be subject to change.
Copyright April 1990 by former NYS Senator Manfred Ohrenstein who represented portions of New York City. Permission for electronic publication is given by the Office of Senator Ohrenstein and may be freely reproduced electronically as long as no editing occurs and as long all disclaimers and the opening and closing informational banners appearing in this document remain intact. For any other type of publication or distribution, contact the Senatorís office.