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While most New Yorkers don't tend to have a whole lot of sympathy for renters dropping $5,000 a month on Williamsburg studios, it's hard not to feel terrible for the residents of the Bedford Lofts, who made headlines recently after being booted from their apartments shortly before Thanksgiving, as the New York Post reported. It's also hard not to feel a twinge of paranoia and wonder if this could happen to us.
The problem here was that the building—formerly owned by Menacham Stark, the Brooklyn slumlord whose abduction and murder was all over the news last year—had largely been built without permits and was rife with violations, to the point that after an inspection last week, the Department of Buildings deemed in "imminently perilous to life," per Gothamist, and gave residents about an hour to clear out.
It's all an unfortunate reminder that to a degree, renting an apartment will always be a roll of the dice. To really know about these kinds of structural issues in advance, you'd have to do the kind of expensive due diligence—e.g. bringing in an engineer and/or architect to inspect—people do when buying an apartment, "and most people are not going to do that or invest that kind of work in a rental," says tenant lawyer Sam Himmelstein.
Still, on your next rental hunt, a little basic research can go a long way. Google the address, as well as the names of any developers, landlords, or management companies involved to see if either has a long history of complaints (or, say, bed bugs). Himmelstein also recommends searching the address on the Department of Buildings website. "See if they have a lot of violations, what work was done, and if they got permits for that work," he says. The DoB website will also tell you whether or not the building has a Certificate of Occupancy. (If it doesn't, run the other way--they're not legally allowed to rent it out, period.)
But even strategic research can't always reveal structural problems that are just waiting to rear their heads, so if the worst case scenario happens and you find yourself in the same position as the renters as the Bedford Lofts, Himmelstein recommends banding together with your fellow displaced tenants, and bringing a case against the landlord immediately. "Landlords will drag their feet unless you haul them in front of a judge," he says. And as always when tenants go up against shady landlords (and their shoddy buildings), there's strength in numbers.
Ask Sam: How do I start a tenants' association? (sponsored)