New York City's affordable housing crisis prompted landmark rent reforms earlier this year aimed at maintaining the city’s affordable housing inventory and giving tenants broader protections. The rent-stabilization program is one of NYC's initiatives to provide New Yorkers with apartments in neighborhoods they otherwise couldn't afford.
The program offers additional protections like predictable and manageable rent increases, and an automatic lease renewal every year or two, meaning that except in rare circumstances, your landlord can't kick you out.
With all those perks it’s no surprise that rent-stabilized apartments are snapped up quickly and tenants who find one tend to stay put. Around one million of the city’s apartments are rent-stabilized, which is about 44 percent of NYC’s total rental stock, so you can still find them, if you know where to look, but understanding this complicated program can take some effort.
[Editor's note: This story previously ran in April 2019, and has been updated with new information for September 2019.]
If you want to find a rent-stabilized apartment or merely hang onto one, it's useful to know the ins and outs and how to protect your rights.
1. What makes an apartment rent-stabilized?
It's not easy to find a rent-stabilized apartment, that's for sure. For one thing, tenants in stabilized apartments usually hang onto them, and landlords don't always advertise the stabilized status of their rentals.
Recent rent reforms have, however, put an end to “vacancy decontrol,” which allowed landlords to remove apartments from rent stabilization once tenants moved out and the rent exceeded a certain threshold. This will protect New York City’s rent-stabilized inventory.
Persistence is the key to finding a rent regulated apartment. While there are some important exceptions, the rule of thumb is that just about any apartment in a building with six or more units constructed before July 1st, 1974 and not “substantially rehabilitated” is stabilized. This is different from the even rarer rent control, which applies to buildings built before 1947 where tenants have been living there since 1971.
However, not all apartments in these types of buildings are necessarily rent stabilized. Prior to the new rent laws, an apartment could have been deregulated if the rent reached a threshold of $2,774.76. In prior years this threshold was lower, originally $2,000, then rising to $2,500.
The city maintains lists of stabilized buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. You can look up addresses on the website of the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, as well as the aptly-named site Am I Rent Stabilized.
You can also check whether an address has received a J-51 or 421-a abatement, which is a sure sign that a building has stabilized apartments.
And aside from investigating the status of the building, you’ll want to make sure that the rent for the individual apartment is, in fact, the legal rent. To find out, request a rent history from DHCR, which will show you every time the landlord has increased the rent and why. Keep in mind that there are myriad ways an unscrupulous landlord might try to illegally remove an apartment from rent-stabilization, so you might need to do some digging.
One other aspect of the rent reforms is that it is now easier to challenge the status of your apartment—if you signed a market-rate lease but think your apartment should be stabilized, there’s a better chance of successfully proving the unit was illegally deregulated and having your rent rolled back.
Landlords are supposed to include a rent-stabilization rider in all new leases and renewals informing tenants of their legal rights. However, in practice, landlords sometimes keep tenants in the dark and don't necessarily tell prospective renters about the status of the apartment when they're on the hunt.
People who are new to the city often don’t know to ask if an apartment is rent-stabilized. It’s not uncommon to get misinformation from either brokers or the landlords about what their protections are in a particular unit.
In fact, you may want to avoid asking the landlord altogether, lest they mark you as a problem tenant and rent to someone else, says Sam Himmelstein, a tenants' rights lawyer with Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph (a Brick Underground sponsor).
2. How are rent-stabilized apartments maintained?
In the past, landlords raised the rent in return for building and apartment renovations, to the point where apartments could be taken out of the program. The new law prevents this, but one unintended consequence, landlords say, is that apartments will fall into disrepair. Because there are now caps on raising the rent for building and apartment upgrades and landlords can’t deregulate a rent-stabilized apartment when it passes a rent threshold, they say they are going to be less incentivized to remodel and renovate them. It’s too early to tell whether this will actually happen.
It is true that most stabilized apartments are in older buildings, and also that landlords have been known to skimp on repairs for renters who aren’t paying market-rate, and even to sabotage their own buildings to force stabilized tenants out, although evictions are more difficult under the new laws. But with the reinstatement of the 421-a tax abatement program, developers can continue building affordable housing in exchange for tax breaks, meaning that some new construction rentals are stabilized, too.
Separately, hundreds of buildings across the city are rent-stabilized because their owners received a J-51 property tax abatement, a tax break that landlords get for significantly rehabilitating or converting a building from another use.
In a far-reaching 2009 court decision in which an appeals court found that the landlord of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village illegally raised rents and deregulated thousands of apartments after receiving a J-51 tax break, more than 3,000 apartments in these buildings were retroactively stabilized.
Keep in mind, though, that both 421-a and J-51 tax abatements do eventually expire—after anywhere from 10 to 35 years—at which point, so does the apartments’ rent-stabilized status. Unless, that is, the landlord hasn’t followed guidelines for alerting tenants about this—in which case, you are entitled to stay put and your apartment continues to be stabilized.
The Rent Guidelines Board has information on whether a building that receives a tax abatement will eventually lose coverage.
Is your rent-stabilized apartment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—or more—in a buyout? New York City real estate attorney and buyout expert Steven Wagner of Wagner Berkow will analyze your case, tell you how much your landlord is likely to pay, and apply the maximum legal and tactical pressure to get you the biggest offer (often, more than your neighbors). Bonus: He typically works on a contingency fee—meaning you are billed only if and when you receive your buyout. For a complimentary 15 minute telephone consultation with Steven Wagner, click here or call 646-780-7272.
3. What are rents like? How much do they go up each year?
Annual rent increases are set by the Rent Guidelines Board, a city agency that meets every June to vote on hikes for one- and two-year leases. In 2019, the board approved rent hikes of 1.5 percent on one-year renewals and 2.5 percent on two-year renewals.
It’s possible your rent could also rise as a result of Major Capital Improvements—upgrades to the building like replacement elevators, fire escapes, and water tanks. Before the rent reforms, tenants might have expected to see a 6 percent annual rent increase to pay for renovations, now it is capped at 2 percent per year. A landlord must apply to DHCR to have an MCI approved and a tenant is also allowed to challenge or fight an MCI application.
There are two kinds of Individual Apartment Improvements: one where work is carried out when a unit becomes vacant and another where work can be done while you are in situ. For this second type of IAI, landlords must get your written permission to make the upgrades.
The cost to a tenant for improvements to a specific apartment is also now capped at $15,000 over a 15 year period, if the work is carried out.
Affordable rent is undoubtedly a life-changing benefit for tenants, but rent-stabilized apartments aren’t always cheaper than their market-rate counterparts. Landlords sometimes charge a “preferential” rent that’s lower than what’s technically allowed, because the legal rent would be too steep for the neighborhood. This is particularly prevalent in less expensive parts of the city, especially in the outer boroughs.
In the past, a preferential rent might be offered to a tenant, only for the rent to be hiked when the initial lease expired. The rent reforms changed that—making sure that tenants who are offered this type of rental situation will keep the preferential rent for the entire tenancy. Tenant activists believe 266,000 apartments in NYC have this type of arrangement.
4. Rent stabilization is not based on income
Most affordable housing programs in the city—such as Mitchell-Lama co-ops, 80/20 rentals, and Section 8 vouchers—come with income restrictions for residents. Not so for rent stabilization. Getting a rent-stabilized apartment has nothing to do with the amount of money you earn and everything to do with your luck unearthing one of these spots. Although, of course, a landlord will still verify that you make enough to pay the rent.
In the past, a tenant who earned more than $200,000 a year for two years consecutively and whose rent was above the $2,744.76 or earlier thresholds, was vulnerable to having their apartment deregulated but the rent reforms put an end to that.
“It has everything to do with the apartment and nothing to do with the tenant,” says landlord Arik Lifshitz, president of DSA Management, a firm that rents out a mix of rent-stabilized and market-rate apartments.
“In general, the longer you’ve been in occupancy, the lower your rent is going to be,” Himmelstein says.
5. What are the benefits of a rent-stabilized lease?
A crucial feature of rent-stabilization is the security it gives tenants, since landlords are required to renew leases every year and there are only certain circumstances where you can be booted from your apartment.
For Lynn, a stay-at-home mom who pays less than $2,000 a month for an East Village one bedroom with her husband and two young kids, the feeling of stability is one of the main advantages, allowing her to plan her budget every year.
“Once you get a rent-stabilized apartment, you feel like this is for long term,” she says.
“People think when the lease expires they can be brought into court and evicted, and that’s just not the case,” Himmelstein says. From 90 to 150 days before your lease expires, your landlord should offer you a renewal or, if there’s a valid reason not to renew (like a plan to move a family member of the owner into your apartment), a notice stating as much.
If you don’t get either, you’re still covered by all the protections of rent stabilization and, in fact, your landlord can’t raise your rent until the lease is renewed (or hike it retroactively), so in some ways it’s a benefit to renters not to get an official lease renewal, Himmelstein says. That said, if you want the document, you can file a complaint to DHCR.
There are instances in which a landlord can evict you. If you’re breaking the terms of your lease—like not using your apartment as a primary residence, for instance, keeping a pet when it’s against the rules, or illegally subletting on Airbnb—you’re making yourself vulnerable to getting the boot. In most cases, though, a housing court judge will give you a chance to “cure” (that is, address the problem) before ruling to evict you.
The rent reforms have made it more difficult for you to be evicted even if the landlord wants to use your apartment to house family members. In the past landlord could recover as many apartments as they liked for owner use, now they are limited to one apartment per building and must prove an immediate and compelling necessity. “That is a much harder burden to meet,” says Himmelstein.
In addition, anyone who has been renting for 15 years or more would have to be relocated to a superior or equivalent rent-stabilized apartment close by and rent reforms allow tenants to sue for fraud if they give up the apartment and the landlord’s family member doesn’t occupy the apartment. You may have to leave if the landlord plans to demolish the building—but that might not be entirely bad news, some stabilized tenants have negotiated lucrative buyouts in such situations.
6. You can be evicted if it is not your primary residence
One of the main reasons landlords kick tenants out is by proving that their apartment is not their primary residence. And primary residence doesn’t just mean you get your Con Ed bill at that address—it means that you actually live there for more than six months of the year.
“You could have every piece of paper in the world listing that address as your address, but if you don’t spend more than half your time there, that’s what the judge is going to be concerned about,” Himmelstein says, though there are certain exceptions.
If a landlord suspects you live elsewhere, he can take you to court and get access to your bank statements, credit card records, flight records, and more, all to convince a judge that you don’t actually live in the apartment and evict you.
“However with the passage of the new laws, landlords generally don’t have the financial incentive to pursue these cases,” says Himmelstein, “because even if they recover the apartment they cannot deregulate it and cannot raise the rent more than $89 per month for the next tenant.”
7. You should not overcharge your roommates
While you can share your apartment with a roommate, you must split the rent evenly—half for two people, in thirds for three people, and so on—even if that person has a bigger room or other perks.
Rent-stabilized tenants must charge roommates by evenly dividing the total rent by the number of tenants. However, charging your roommate extra is not grounds for eviction. You'd only get evicted if you were subletting the apartment, i.e. renting it out and not living there at the same time.
8. Who can you add to the lease? Who can take over the apartment?
The only person you can add to an existing rent-stabilized lease to share in all the benefits and responsibilities of the apartment along with you is a spouse, provided they live with you.
“Not a live-in lover, not a partner, not a domestic partner, just a spouse,” Himmelstein says.
However, if you leave the apartment, you can hand it over to a family member who’s been living with you as their primary residence for at least two years (or one year if your family member is 62 or older, or disabled). That person can be a parent, child, grandparent, grandchild, sibling, or a person with whom you have a close financial and emotional relationship, such as a partner who shares your bank account or other legal and financial connections.
Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Leigh Kamping-Carder and Alanna Shubach