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Needing something fixed in your apartment is an inevitable part of the experience of renting in New York City. Fortunately, there are laws and regulations that require landlords to act promptly when you report something is broken, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your leaky faucet or faulty microwave will be repaired immediately.
Typically, a landlord’s responsiveness depends on several variables, like how efficiently your super or management company runs the building, whether or not you live in a rent controlled apartment, or how keen your landlord is to retain you as a tenant.
But there are ways you can speed up repairs, like putting the request in writing. Other tips also involve tipping the building staff, teaming up with other residents who are dealing with the similar problems, or taking the matter to the city authorities.
[Editor's note: A previous version of this post was published in October 2020. We are presenting it again as part of our holiday Best of Brick week.]
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, especially for a big repair job. (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, log your problem there, says Steven Wagner, partner at the Manhattan law firm Wagner Berkow & Brandt (a Brick Underground sponsor). However he points out that writing a letter to the super or to the managing agent and copying in the other makes it official and will get a better response.
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, 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 a little cash, even if it just means getting moved to the head of the line above the 20 other tenants clamoring for attention.
A tip can also 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.
Tipping your building staff over the holidays is standard practice in NYC—and this year it will be more important than ever—so don’t be surprised if your super becomes more responsive to your requests during the final months of the year.
3) Call 311
If you've exhausted your options and are dealing with something arguably dangerous to health, life, and safety (such as vermin, dangerous electrical wires, unreasonable noise, leaks, damaged ceilings, or mold), 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 on 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 type of 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 which can be a problem when it’s time to renegotiate that lease in a market rate apartment. (Tenants in rent stabilized apartments have additional protections and can only have their rent increased by the percentage set by the Rent Guidelines Board and they also have a right to a lease renewal for a one or two year term).
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 partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donaghue, & Joseph (also a Brick Underground sponsor).
You can use this for services like discontinued amenities, but also problems like heat, hot water, or repairs, he says. "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," he says.
4) Take your landlord and the city to court
If you’re taking this route, you’ve probably exhausted all your other options. Keep in mind the court process has been severely disrupted by the pandemic and cases are moving very slowly. However, if it is an emergency, and your conditions are so severe that the apartment is uninhabitable, the court will expedite the hearing.
The city categorizes violations into three groups. 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 security door to the building or the presence of roaches or bed bugs; and C is an immediately hazardous condition, including lack of heat, hot water, electricity, or the presence of rodents.
If the city has already issued a violation, you can look up its classification on the relevant agency's website. If not, check out 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,” Wagner says. The court will send out an inspector but they will only check the items that are listed, “so don’t be shy,” he says
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, Wagner says, 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 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 avoid this.
"This is one of the reasons that these days we advise people to bring HP cases as opposed to withholding rent," Himmelstein says.
You also have the added protection that landlords cannot refuse to rent to you in the future just because they find out you have a complicated tenant-landlord history. Tenant screening companies should not be providing this type of information to landlords and if they do, the landlord can’t refuse to rent to you based on that information.
5) Withhold rent
While you risk winding up in housing court, 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.”
Class C violations 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. 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 and approach your landlord as a unified group. If the entire building is making a demand and threatening legal action or withholding rent payments, your landlord is much more likely to sit up and pay attention.
7) Do it yourself
This option may 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.
This is a risky option, Wagner says. "No landlord will ever want you to do it yourself, because they can always get it done for cheaper," he says. If the landlord rejects your attempt at taking the cost of repairs out of your rent check, you could also wind up in housing court.
There are some exceptions, Himmelstein says. "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," he says.
Know your DIY limits and don't try anything blatantly unsafe or illegal.
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.
Himmelstein says 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. "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," he says.