Rental Guide for smart renters


6 Ways to Get Stuff Fixed in Your Apartment..

payment of rent where conditions are dangerous to life, health or safety,” says Wagner.  “Some nice clear photos of the conditions are always a good idea in court too.”

You do not need a lawyer, but you do need proof such as  those photographs, a calendar on which you tracked the conditions on a daily basis, and evidence of your communications or efforts to communicate with the landlord. 

Even with a Class C violation, your case is not a slam dunk.

“The landlord can prevail by showing that you created the condition or by claiming that you did not provide access and prevented the landlord from making the repair,” says Wagner.  (Keep in mind that your lease probably has a ‘legal fees’ clause that will allow the landlord to recover his expenses if he wins. Although if you win, you get to recover your legal fees.)

“You need to be sure that you will win on the Warranty of Habitability claim or you may be sorry you ever took this route,” says Wagner. 

You may also be sorry when you go rent another apartment, as many if not most landlords refuse to rent to someone who has previously been involved in litigation with a landlord.

5. Take your landlord AND the city to court

This is another option for renters dealing Class A, B or C violations: The HP Proceeding, which Wagner likes to refer to as the Nuclear Bomb.  (“HP” stands for “Housing Part” a.k.a. Housing Court.)

It costs $45 to file an H.P., or Housing Part, action; the advocacy group Housing Court Answers has a guide and video on its Web site explaining the process. It also operates a hot line, at (212) 962-4795. You can file a Housing Part action on your own, or with other tenants in your building — if, for instance, your landlord has refused to fix the elevator.

As you will not need a lawyer, it costs you practically nothing; housing court clerks help prepare the necessary papers to start the HP proceeding. 

“Just be sure to make a complete list of everything wrong so that when the court sends out an inspector, they will know all of the complaints,” says Wagner. “The inspectors will only check those items that are listed, so don’t be shy.”

When the case appears on the court calendar, the attorneys for the city will prosecute the case for you and force the landlord to make the repairs that the inspector confirms are violations.  

“These cases usually get resolved with the landlord either adjourning the case to get more time to make repairs before the judge hears the case," says Wagner, "or by the parties signing a stipulation of settlement that requires the landlord to make the repairs either immediately for class C violations, within 30 days for class B violations or within 90 days for class A violations.”

Fines can be significant if the landlord does not make the necessary repairs. They typically range from $50 per day after 90 days for class A violations to $250 per day imposed immediately for C violations  says Wagner.

“The court will enforce fines not only with a money judgment against the landlord, but if the landlord persistently fails to make the repairs, the court may punish the landlord for contempt,” says Wagner.

The downside here is the same as with withholding rent: If your next landlord finds out, they will probably refuse to rent to you.

While an H.P. action hardly ever shows up on a tenant-screening report, lawyers advise tenants against withholding rent as a way of getting maintenance problems addressed, because of the risk that the landlord will sue to collect back rent or start eviction proceedings.

A suit by a landlord is the kind of thing that can end up on the dossiers of tenant-screening companies.

“We get calls all the time from people who can’t get apartments because of this,” said Louise Seeley, the executive director of Housing Court Answers.

The threat of that blacklist is one reason lawyers caution against paying for repairs yourself and deducting the cost from your rent, unless you have received written permission from your landlord.

6. Do it yourself

This is a somewhat less aggressive option that falls between withholding rent and heading straight to court in an HP proceeding:  Get an estimate for repairing the problem, send it to your landlord and request the repair in writing. 

If your request is ignored, pay for it yourself,  and deduct it from your next rent check.  There’s a decent chance this approach will succeed.  However, if your landlord balks, “you might wind up in housing court,” says Wagner. 

Now it’s up to you whether you want to eat the cost of the repair or risk being blackballed by future landlords.

If you decide to stand your ground,  explains Wagner, “the landlord will try to collect and the tenant will claim Warranty of Habitability and that he or she spent money to correct the condition.”

Copies of the bills and proof of payment are critical to your defense, along with documentation of the condition, notice to the landlord that the condition existed (make copies of any letters and send them certified mail, saving proof of mailing) —and that the landlord failed or refused to correct the condition.

Renting is supposed to be a carefree existence:  When your apartment malfunctions—be it a stuck window, your incessantly running toilet or a section of the ceiling that collapses onto your living room--the landlord (or management firm) sends someone to fix it. 

There are ways to nudge a landlord to address non-urgent maintenance issues, starting with an e-mail or letter describing the problem, so that you have a record of the complaint. An emergency like a waterfall coming through the ceiling obviously warrants a phone call, but it’s still worth following up in writing and mentioning your willingness to provide access to the apartment.

“The main goal is to get the repairs done, so you want to be as clear and cooperative as possible,” said Karen Bacdayan, a housing law specialist with the Brooklyn branch of Legal Services for New York City, which offers free legal advice to low-income clients.

If you're having trouble  getting things done, here are six ways to push the right buttons:

1. Put it in writing and take pictures

We’re not sure why, but complaints in writing tend to get more attention than just calling or telling the super what you need. 

Lawyers who represent tenants recommend taking pictures of problems like mold on the ceiling, and keeping a log listing the dates and times when the heat or hot water wasn’t working. If the heat is not functioning properly, note both indoor and outdoor temperature. New York City requires landlords to heat apartments to at least 68 degrees between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. when it is cooler than 55 degrees outside, and to at least 55 degrees between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. when the outside temperature falls below 40.

2. Tip the super

Though it may seem unjust to have to tip someone to do what they are already paid to do, this is a time-honored and fairly successful way to get attention, even if it’s just getting moved to the head of the line above the 20 other tenants clamoring for attention.  A tip may also get your repair performed better—inducing, for example, your super to replace your broken fridge with a new one instead of the cast-off in the basement.

3. Call 311

If your landlord isn’t responsive to either an emergency or a serious maintenance problem, your next option is to call 311, the city’s citizen service center.

“When a complaint is called in to 311,” said Vito Mustaciuolo, a deputy commissioner for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, “operators enter the information directly into our database and the caller is given a complaint ID number.”

The department enforces the city’s housing maintenance code and New York State’s multiple-dwelling law, so your problem has to be addressable under those regulations. Some problems that are: inadequate heat or hot water; electricity and gas malfunctions; mold; leaks; peeling paint; plumbing or sewage issues; rodent or insect infestations; and safety hazards like broken locks or window guards.

A problem that is not: a broken dishwasher or washing machine.

The department’s manual, “The ABCs of Housing,” available online, addresses repair issues.

When in doubt, Mr. Mustaciuolo said, call 311 and ask if your problem qualifies for city intervention. He notes that the city receives more than 600,000 housing complaints every year.

But give your landlord a chance to respond before you ask for city help. Frank Ricci, the director of governmental affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, a trade group for property owners, said some tenants dial 311 before even trying to deal directly with a landlord.

Once a complaint is filed, the city will contact the landlord or the building’s managing agent, and may send out a housing inspector who can issue a violation. You can look up your address on the department’s Web site to see if any open violations or complaints were filed in the last year; you can also check the status of a complaint.

Depending on the violation, the landlord has 24 hours to 90 days to correct the problem. For immediate hazards like no heat, if the landlord does not act, the city might handle the repair and bill the landlord.

But for less urgent repairs, or for situations in which the city does not intervene, you may have to take matters into your own hands.

Downside: Your repair may be taken care of, but this will not endear you to your landlord when it’s time to renegotiate that lease. Of course, maybe you don’t want to live there anymore anyway.

4. Withhold rent

Depending on the seriousness of your problem, it might make sense to withhold rent.

The city sorts violations into three categories: Class A, Class B, or Class C.  Class A is a non-hazardous condition, such as a minor leak or a small area of peeling paint when there are no children under the age of 6,  Class B is a hazardous violation such as the absence of a self-closing door to the building (for security) or presence of vermin (i.e., roaches, bed bugs); and C is an immediately hazardous condition such as lack of heat, hot water, electricity or rodents, explains Wagner. 

(If the city has already issued a violation, you can look up its classification on the relevant agency's website.  If not, peruse the Housing Maintenance Code to see how your problem will likely classified.)

Class C violations stand the best chance of convincing a court that you're entitled to a significant rent abatement, says Wagner.

If you sent the landlord a letter asking for the repair, the city has issued the landlord a violation,  and you withhold rent, "you should be in pretty good shape to succeed on a Warranty of Habitability claim, which is a defense to non-

If you are considering housing court (as a very last resort). Here is a Tenant’s Guide to NYC Housing Court, and How to Prepare for a Landlord-Tenant Trial. The NYS Division of Housing even has nifty forms for Tenants. Check out the newest one—Tenant’s Complaint of Owner’s Failure to Disclose Bedbug Infestation History. Now we’re getting somewhere!