Q: We are tenants in a market-rate rental building on the Upper West Side. The laundry machines are in the basement, which is a common area. The problem is that the basement is stuffed with junk — which I was willing to put up with, but now I’ve seen a rat nosing around. There’s a full-size couch that’s been left for months, a broken-down air-conditioner on the floor, an extension cord coiled around the pipes, and a knife block filled with knives sitting on the electric meter. It’s unclear where all this stuff came from. Besides the rats, I’m worried that the junk is a fire hazard. I’ve called 311 to make a complaint, but what else can be done?
A: Leaving garbage in common areas to attract rats and create fire hazards violates New York’s habitability laws, which hold landlords responsible for keeping apartments and buildings safe and livable. But even though the law is on your side, getting landlords and management companies to respond isn’t always easy.
Start with a letter to your landlord and management company describing the conditions in the basement and the problems the junk creates. Keep copies of your letter, as well as any response that you receive, and take photos documenting the problem.
“Clearly, having these items in the common areas is a fire hazard,” said Samuel J. Himmelstein, a real estate lawyer in Manhattan. “Having knives there seems to be really, really crazy.”
Your call to 311 will likely result in a visit from an inspector from the Department of Buildings or Housing Preservation and Development, who can issue a violation. The problem is, landlords often do not respond to these citations because the consequences aren’t great enough. Sometimes the city will file a case in housing court if the violations are not addressed, but that happens when the violations are extreme.
The next step is housing court, where you can file a lawsuit to address these violations. This is effective, but can be tricky for market-rate tenants, because a landlord can then decide not to renew your lease. (Rent-stabilized tenants have protection from this kind of action.) This retaliation is not legal, but it’s difficult to prove. Even if you can prove that your landlord retaliated against you, you might win a one-year lease renewal and nothing more. That’s because after it is ruled on, your claim of retaliation would go away, and the landlord could decline to renew your lease from there, Mr. Himmelstein said.
If you recruit your neighbors to file a lawsuit en masse, you can split the lawyer’s fee and possibly dilute any retaliatory actions by your landlord.
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