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strange rent overcharge--how to combat?

Posted by Kim on August 16, 2001 at 15:50:28:

In May, I moved into a $1450/mo studio apartment in a six-unit building in Manhattan. Several units in the 100-yr-old building are rent stablized; the lease I signed says mine is not.

I found the apartment through a friend who was moving out; we went to the landlord and said I wanted to rent it. He said we had to go through his broker. The broker never once entered the apartment with me--I've never even met the woman, only spoke with her on the phone. Needing an apartment, I agreed to pay the broker's fee the landlord said we'd have to pay--I figured I'd sort it out later.

When it was time to sign the lease, I was asked to make a check for 60% of the broker's fee out to the managing agent. I have certified checks to prove this. So, key money--that's issue #1.

While investigating the key money issue, I went to DHCR and got a copy of my rent history, back to '84. From 1984-1998 the registration shows the apartment as temporarily vacant because of commercial occupation. (The listed tenant is "Contemportary Guidance Service.") The actual and legal rents are both listed as $0.

In 1998, the tenant changes to "Debra Wolf," and the apartment is listed as permenantly exempt. Reason given: High rent vacancy. The actual and legal rent is still listed as $0. There is no registration after 1998.

I've consulted two lawyers, and they've both said this appears to be out-and-out fraud. Problem is, as much as I know it's in my long-term interests, I can't afford to pay a lawyer to take this to court. Both have estimated it would cost $5K-$8K. My lease allows for reimbursement of lawyers' fees, but I can't scrounge up the cash for the up-front expenditure.

So...has anyone actually gone through DHCR with a similar case? It's pretty blatently illegal, but also complicated enough that I'm worried they would give the landlord a chance to claim it was an accident and reregister the apartement or something. Alternatively, anyone have an experience with going to supreme court pro se?

All advice highly appreciated! Thanks.

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