Dear Sam: I want to secure a rent stabilized apartment, and I meet all the requirements (40x rent, excellent credit, etc). The landlord originally verbally said one month rent and one month security, but is now asking for two months security, which I don't think he can do on a rent-stabilized apartment. But if I say no, he will likely just refuse me the apartment. Do I have any recourse? Nothing has been signed.
"This one is fairly simple," says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. "The landlord is acting illegally by demanding a two month deposit, and it is considered a rent overcharge." Unfortunately, you're right to assume that if you bring this up before you sign the lease, you're not too likely to land the apartment.
So what's a renter to do? "Sign the lease, pay the deposit, and once you move in, send a letter demanding back one of the months deposit," advises Himmelstein. The fact that you agreed to pay it in the first place doesn't matter here, he says, because "under rent stabilization, an agreement which violates the law is void," he adds.
If your landlord refuses to pay up, you can file an overcharge complaint with the DHCR and ask for not just your month's deposit back, says Himmelstein, but "interest at the rate of nine percent, and treble damages; three times the amount of the deposit." (That is, unless the landlord can somehow prove the overcharge was not willful, in which case, you'll still get overcharge and interest money, but not the treble damages.) Either way, the money will (eventually) be yours, and your landlord can't legally retaliate against you.
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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.