Dear Sam: I've lived in my rent-stabilized apartment for 20 years, and over time, the screen door to my terrace has developed tearing from normal use, and has gotten pretty old and dirty from the weather. Management told me it's not possible to repair or replace the door, even if I pay for the work myself, and I've been given the impression that they won't fix or replace it until I vacate the apartment, and a market-rate tenant moves in. Am I entitled to a new screen door, or no?
While no one wants to live with a broken screen door (or the accompanying insects it might invite into your home), in the scheme of things that could be wrong with your rent-stabilized apartment, this is relatively minor, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.
"I don't think this qualifies as a breach of the Warranty of Habitability," says Himmelstein, referring to the landlord's legal obligation to provide you with a livable home. For this reason, he doesn't recommend withholding rent, and while some judges might side with you if you fix the screen door yourself, then deduct the cost of repairs from your rent, Himmelstein warns, "If the landlord wants to play hard ball, you could get dragged to housing court."
Instead, your best bet here is to file a reduction of services claim with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal—and, as in all landlord-related disputes, create a careful paper trail in the process. If you haven't already, put your request for repairs to your landlord in writing. Then, if they continue to refuse, you can file your reduction of services claim (more tips on that process can be found here), and if the DHCR finds that your problem qualifies, your rent will likely be rolled back to what it was before your most recent increase and frozen at that amount until the landlord completes the repair.
That said, if you're hoping to avoid legal headaches (and the ill will of your landlord), the best course of action may just be to pay for the repairs yourself. "I tell clients all the time to pick your battles," says Himmelstein. "You might end up saying to yourself, 'I want a screen door that works, but I don't want to go to the mattresses over this.' And since you've created a paper trail requesting the repair, the landlord can't claim that your improvements are an illegal alteration."
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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.