Ask a Renters Rights Lawyer

My landlord promised me cheap rent, and has now jacked up the price. What can I do?

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Question:

Q: When I moved into my apartment 4 years ago, I had a verbal agreement with the landlord that I would fix up the apartment, in exchange for 10 years of a $1,200/month rent. I've renovated the whole apartment (and have receipts and photos), but he just informed me that starting in January, my rent will be going up by 50%. What are my rights?

Answer:

Unfortunately, if your agreement wasn't in writing, your landlord is within his rights to raise your rent as much as he likes, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.

"The Statute of Frauds is a law in New York that requires certain agreements to be in writing," Himmelstein explains. (You can read up on the law here.) "And one thing that has to be in writing are lease agreements longer than one year in length. They're not enforceable unless they're in writing."

So if you went to court and tried to prove that you had this verbal agreement, the testimony wouldn't be allowed, because it would be violating the requirements set out by the Statute of Frauds. One bright spot, however, is that the written agreement doesn't have to be a formal lease, so it's worth looking through all your correspondence with your landlord to see if your arrangement was ever confirmed in writing. "

"The written proof could be a lease, it could be an exchange of emails, it could be something scrawled down on a piece of paper," says Himmelstein. "But it does have to be in writing."

And even if you do have a formal lease, unless it includes a specific clause about this agreement (or unless you're rent-stabilized), you'd still be out of luck, since the terms set out in your written lease would be considered the official terms of your tenancy.

"The landlord acted very unscrupulously, but here the tenant is barred from doing anything," says Himmelstein. "We just had a case where a guy did $300,000 worth of work, and one year later the landlord said 'I'm not renewing.' And you can't take out the things you put in, once they become fixtures—things like cabinets or a new tub or toilet." If you bought new appliances, however, you can take those with you when you leave.

"As unfair as it might seem, that's the law," Himmelstein says. Next time, whatever your arrangement, be sure to get it down in writing.

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Sam Himmelstein, Esq., represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph in Manhattan.  To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam or call (212) 349-3000.

 

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