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My building's renovation is so dusty I can't use my living room. Can I get a break on the rent?

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Q: I'm renting in a co-op, and the building is currently doing renovations on the risers for the past month. It's very dusty at times; we've already had to move things out of the closet, but soon won't be able to use our living room because the workers need to temporarily move our couch. Is there any rule for compensation or relocation in this kind of situation?

If the conditions are as bad as the ones you describe, you're very likely entitled to a reduction in your rent or maintenance costs, say our experts. A subsidized relocation, however, is less likely, though not outside the realm of possibility.

"The Warranty of Habitability requires the landlord to keep the property free of conditions that are dangerous to life, health and safety," explains real estate attorney Steven Wagner of Wagner Berkow. "Dust and noise could be grounds for reduction of the maintenance charges."

On top of that, buildings undergoing work that's likely to be disruptive are required to file what's known as a Site Safety Plan with the city to protect residents. If yours didn't file one—or if they're violating the terms they set out—"there could be liability and compensation awarded if damages were shown," Wagner says. (To find out whether or not your building filed a Site Safety Plan, you'll have to make your request with the Department of Buildings.)

There's also language in the Multiple Dwelling Law as well as Housing Maintenance Code that both limit how much your building can disrupt your life with construction, and entitle you to certain standard of living conditions. Your proprietary lease almost certainly lays out similar stipulations, so give that another read before you make any decisions. 

All of which is to say that no, you shouldn't be living in a cloud of dust—or without use of your living room—without some kind of financial compensation. But as we've written previously, the actual amount of rent abatements can be notoriously hard to predict, and varies depending on the severity of the problem.

As always, your first step should be to make your complaint in writing (preferably mailed by certified mail so you have a record) to both the co-op shareholder from whom you're renting, and directly to the board. If they fail to fix the problem or offer some kind of compensation, typically, tenants get around this by withholding all or some of their rent, and letting a judge settle the matter once the landlord inevitably takes them to Housing Court. (But litigious renters beware: Even if you win, appearing in Housing Court can land you on the tenant blacklist.)

As for relocation, your landlord doesn't have to put you up in a hotel, but if the situation is bad enough to constitute a "constructive eviction," you would move out of the apartment and be entitled to damages, Wagner says. (And presumably, you'd use those damage payments to pay for new digs.) In any case, start by notifying your landlord and the building, and if they refuse to cooperate, you could go to court and letting a judge decide what you're owed.


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