Dear Sam: What is the purpose of a tenants' association, and how do I start one in my building?
Tenant associations are as generally useful as they are easy to create, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. "The purpose of a tenant association is to be able to more effectively deal with your landlord on issues you as tenants are facing in common," he tells us. This includes problems with repairs or services; Major Capital Improvement rent increases; and determining if your building is rent-stabilized or if you're being overcharged.
"Just about any problem you can imagine will be dealt with more effectively as a group, because it somewhat levels the playing field [between the tenants and the landlord] financially, legally, and politically," Himmelstein adds. Tenants' associations are particularly helpful for problems that are likely to incur legal costs, he says, as you can split up the cost of a lawyer among a large number of tenants, meaning that it's cheaper to seek out help, and that your landlord is less likely to try to wear you down by racking up legal fees (as is often the case in disputes with individual tenants).
Another bonus to organizing with your neighbors: New York Real Property Law protects your right to participate in a tenant organization without retaliation—and assumes that if a landlord attempts to evict you within six months of taking good faith actions, including joining a tenants' group, it's retaliatory unless proven otherwise. In other words, if you band together with your fellow renters, you'll have additional protections. Also protected under these laws: your rights as a group to use the building's common space for meetings, without retaliation or any sort of additional charges.
So how to start one of your own?
"Two people or more can constitute themselves as a tenant association simply by saying, 'We are the 920 West End Avenue Tenant Association," says William Gribben, a colleague of Himmelstein's who frequently works with tenant organizations. "A tenant association is an unincorporated, voluntary association." Once you and your neighbors start calling yourselves a tenant association, you can legally be considered as such.
If your tenant association ever needs to handle money as a group to pay lawyers, engineers, etc., you can either open a bank account in the name of your association (though different banks have different requirements for accounts), says Gribben, or simply divide expenses among yourselves and send in individual checks. "We always tell people to be as democratic as possible," he adds. "Make decisions on the part of the group with opportunities for everyone to participate." Of course, if this is the case, you should be prepared for the group to occasionally make decisions you're not 100 percent on board with. "What you gain in economic and legal power, you lose in individuality," says Himmelstein. "You have to go along with the group or not be in the group—it's very similar to how a labor union works."
One caveat to keep in mind: it may not always be wise for market-rate tenants and rent-stabilized tenants to band together. "While market rate tenants have as much of a right as rent-stabilized tenants to form and participate in a tenant association, the problem is that rent-stabilized tenants have that protection of renewal leases, and can't have their rent raised more than a certain amount," says Gribben. "Market rate tenants are more vulnerable, and even though a landlord can't legally retaliate, it is sometimes hard to prove retaliatory motives." Instead, some buildings will have two separate tenant associations for market-rate and stabilized residents, or the market-rate residents may let their stabilized, more legally protected neighbors take the lead. "In a tenant association," says Gribben, "People pretty much have to be in the same boat when it comes to their protections and what it is they're trying to accomplish.
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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.