Ask a Renters Rights Lawyer

Ask Sam: My landlord is accusing me of creating a nuisance with clutter. Can I get evicted for this?

Landlords do have the right to access apartments to ensure they're in keeping with the housing maintenance code. 

Charley Lhasa / Flickr

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Question:

My landlord said there’s a leak coming from my apartment. This was not true; it was a ruse to get in my place. Once inside, my landlord took pictures, and now I’ve received a Notice of Termination, which states that my apartment is cluttered and constitutes a nuisance. Can I be evicted for this? Can my landlord use the pictures they took under false pretenses against me in court?

Answer:

Landlords sometimes use false pretenses to get into tenants’ apartments, particularly when those tenants are resistant to allowing their landlords in because they know they could get into trouble, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph, who represents residential, commercial tenants, and tenant associations.

“The law often does give landlords the right to inspect apartments,” Himmelstein says. “Usually the tenant’s lease includes language about giving the landlord access for routine inspection. The city housing and maintenance code also gives landlords this right.”

Specifically, the code says that landlords may enter tenants’ apartments to make repairs and improvements, or to inspect the space to ensure it is compliant with the code. Some landlords do falsely claim that they need to get into an apartment because they suspect there is a leak or another issue, like roaches or bedbugs, when in fact they are looking for some other condition—like hoarding—that could negatively impact residents of the building.

“It’s not always a ruse,” Himmelstein points out. “Sometimes there really are leaks or roaches. If that is the case, and the problem is caused by the tenant having an unsanitary apartment, they have to give access. They can’t sit there and cause damage to other people’s apartments.”

And if your landlord uses false pretenses to get into your apartment and then finds a real problem, the evidence they find will be accepted in court regardless.

“This does not cause the evidence to be inadmissible. Those rules don’t apply in civil proceedings. People can use trickery to get what they’re looking for,” Himmelstein says.

If a landlord finds a substantial amount of clutter in a tenant’s apartment, to the extent that it constitutes a fire hazard, could impede emergency personnel, or is causing problems for neighbors by attracting vermin or creating bad odors, the tenant is in danger of being evicted if they don’t clean up.

This is considered a nuisance, which is in fact a legal term, and applies to hoarding as well as a number of other issues (read more about nuisance cases here.) Nuisance cases used to lead to eviction more frequently, but in recent years, courts have become more inclined to give tenants a chance to “cure” the problem.

“Courts have understanding and sympathy for people in these situations, who often live alone and likely have some form of mental health issues,” Himmelstein says. “There is some literature on this that when people have the inability to clean up and throw things out, it’s often in the category of obsessive-compulsive disorders.”

Typically, he says, his firm advises people in these situations to let the landlord in to confirm the problem, and then get outside help to cure the issue and avoid eviction.

“We work with companies that will assist tenants in cleaning up their apartments,” he says. “If they do clean up, there’s almost no chance they’ll be evicted.”

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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 at shimmelstein@hmgdjlaw.com or call (212) 349-3000.