Rent long enough in New York City and you eventually run into the need for apartment repairs. But that doesn’t mean your landlord will rush to fix your problem in a timely manner, even though city laws and regulations stipulate that landlords should respond promptly.
In reality, their responsiveness depends on several variables, including how tight a ship your super or management company runs (check out our list of the best landlords in Manhattan). Live in a rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartment? Odds are that repairs will take longer than in market-rate rentals. There also is the pay-to-play expectation of the staff (trust us—that happens), and your own personality (turn on the charm and power of persuasion).
[Editor's note: This story was first published in 2014. It has been updated with new reporting for May 2018.]
If you're having trouble getting things done, here are seven tried-and-true tactics to help move the process along:
1. Put it in writing
Rule number one of dealing with landlords is that you should always put your requests and complaints in writing. (Ideally, by certified mail so no one can claim they lost your letter or that your email got caught in the spam folder.) This serves to create a paper trail in the event you end up taking them to court. It also has a way of getting their attention, fast.
“If there is a complaint book in the building, that’s a good start, but writing a letter to the super or to the managing agent and copying the other makes it official and will get a better response,” says Manhattan real estate attorney Steven Wagner of Wagner Berkow (a Brick sponsor), who handles housing court litigation and administrative proceedings as well as construction and building defect cases. Some leases also have provisions for how the landlord prefers to be contacted, so check yours before you reach out, and act accordingly. If you have multiple, clearly documented attempts to get in touch with the landlord to solve a problem, this will work in your favor in any kind of legal dispute down the road.
2. Tip the super
Sure, it might seem unfair to have to tip someone simply to do their job, but the fact remains that there's no better way to get a super's attention than to slip him a little cash, even if it just means getting moved to the head of the line above the 20 other tenants clamoring for attention. Ever notice how supers become more responsive during the final months of the year? That's because have dreams of large Christmas tips dancing in their heads. A tip can also actually get your repair done 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 you've exhausted your options and are dealing with something arguably dangerous to health, life, and safety (e.g., vermin, dangerous electrical wires, unreasonable noise, mold, etc.), call 311.
"One of the things that people do to avoid going to housing court is to keep calling 311 to get more and more violations logged for the building," Wagner says.
Here's what happens when you do: The city will send out an inspector from either Housing Preservation and Development or the Department of Buildings, or even the Department of Health, depending on the problem.
“Issuance of a violation against the landlord will confirm the existence of the condition and require the landlord to pay a fine or to show up in court to contest the violation," Wagner says. "In either case, your landlord will have to certify that the violation has been corrected.”
The 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. No problem if you don’t want to live there anymore, anyway.
A slight variation on this theme: If you're in a rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartment, you can file a reduction of services complaint with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer (and Brick Underground sponsor) who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.
"You can use this for services like discontinued amenities, but also problems like heat, hot water, or repairs," he says. "And if the conditions are really bad—like there's no heat—the rent can be rolled back to $1. But usually, it will be rolled back to whatever it was before the most recent increase until the landlord restores all services."
4. Take your landlord and the city to court
Obviously, this is going to be a last-case scenario.
This one requires a little background information first: The city sorts violations into three categories—Class A, Class B, and 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, like the absence of a self-closing door to the building (for security) or the presence of vermin (e.g., roaches, bed bugs); and C is an immediately hazardous condition, such as lack of heat, hot water, electricity, or rodents.
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 be classified.
If your problem falls into one of these categories, you can file an HP Proceeding, which Wagner likes to refer to as the Nuclear Bomb. (“HP” stands for “Housing Part,” where tenants can sue their landlords.)
“The HP Proceeding is a lawsuit that you bring in housing court against your landlord for failing to comply with the law and against the City of New York because it has failed to enforce the law,” Wagner says.
Housing court clerks help prepare the necessary papers to start the HP proceeding. Since you will not need a lawyer, it costs you practically nothing.
“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,” Wagner says. “The inspectors will check only 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," Wagner says, "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, says Wagner, to $250-$500 per day, imposed immediately, for Class C violations.
“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,” Wagner says.
One big upside to this approach: While trips to housing court usually land you on the tenant blacklist regardless of whether or not you win the case, with an HP action, you should be safe.
"This is one of the reasons that these days we advise people to bring HP cases as opposed to withholding rent," Himmelstein says.
5. Withhold rent
It does risk winding you up in housing court (and on the dreaded tenant blacklist), but withholding rent is sometimes the best—and perhaps fastest—way to really get a landlord's attention.
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-payment of rent where conditions are dangerous to life, health, or safety,” Wagner says. “Some nice, clear photos of the conditions are always a good idea in court too.”
He also notes that Class C violations (mentioned above) stand the best chance of convincing a court that you're entitled to a significant rent abatement. You don't need a lawyer to pull this one off, but you will want extensive documentation of the problem to strengthen your case in court. Take pictures of the problem, and keep a calendar on which you track the conditions on a daily basis, and log 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,” Wagner says.
Keep in mind that your lease probably has a legal fees clause that will allow the landlord to recover his expenses if he wins. 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,” Wagner says. In other words, save this option for the most extreme cases.
6. Work together with your neighbors
If the problem you're facing is building-wide (as opposed to something wrong in your individual apartment), remember there's strength in numbers, so try to get your neighbors to work as a group to get the issue resolved.
"It's always better to deal with repair issues as a group. I cannot emphasize that enough," says Himmelstein. "You're so much stronger, it's easier to afford legal representation, and it allows you to document things because you have eyes and ears all over the building."
Your best bet is to form a tenants association—tips on that here—and approach your landlord as a group. If the entire building is making a demand (and threatening legal action or withholding rent payments), the landlord is much more likely to sit up and pay attention.
7. Do it yourself
This option would seem straightforward enough: 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.
However, proceed with caution, as the landlord isn't likely to be thrilled.
"No landlord will ever want you to do it yourself, because they can always get it done for cheaper," Wagner says. And if they reject your attempt at taking the cost of repairs out of your rent check, you could wind up in housing court (and, once again, on the blacklist).
"With ordinary repairs like painting, plastering, or fixing a toilet, you don't have a legal right to do it, but if you do it correctly and you document it—meaning you've written more than one letter demanding the repair get done and the landlord refuses to do it—and you do it yourself, many courts will allow you to deduct that from the rent," Himmelstein says.
If you do move forward with this option, 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.
Also, know your limits as a handyman (or handywoman), and don't try anything blatantly unsafe or illegal.
"There are certain repairs you should never do, like anything requiring a permit—electrical work, work that requires you to open up the walls, anything structural or involving the gas line," Himmelstein says. "These all are no-nos. A tenant should never, ever do that work on their own, as you could have tremendous legal exposure, and likely be evicted."
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