Dear Sam: I looked up my apartment's history, and found out the tenant before us was rent-stabilized. Our apartment was extensively renovated before we moved in, but I'm wondering if we still are supposed to be stabilized, and if I have a right to find out how much the landlord spent renovating? I'm not sure what my next steps should be.
Your landlord isn't technically obligated to hand over details of their renovations, but there are several methods you could use to get them, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.
"A landlord doesn't have to give you their renovation documents, but in all rent-stabilized leases and the first lease after an apartment exits stabilization, they're supposed to attach a rider explaining how they calculated the current rent, what the former rent was, and if they did any renovations and if so what they were," Himmelstein explains.
From the sound of it, your landlord used what are known as Individual Apartment Improvements (IAIs) to justify the raise in your rent (and your apartment's move out of rent-stabilization). But keep in mind that even if they did drop thousands of dollars on the upgrades, New York regulations dictate they can only collect an increase equivalent to 1/60th or 1/40th the cost of the work, depending on the number of apartments in the building. (You can find more information on IAIs here.)
So to know if your rent raise was indeed legit, you'll need to get the specifics on what work was done, and how much money was spent. If you hire an attorney, Himmelstein says, they'll likely start by contacting the landlord letting them know that they suspect their client (i.e. you) has been overcharged, and requesting any documents they feel justify the rent increase. Most likely, the landlord's lawyer will advise them to hand 'em over.
A couple of other options: if you file an overcharge claim with the DHCR, they'll require the landlord to produce those documents, and if you sue the landlord in Supreme or Civil court, you can request the documents as part of what's known as "pre-trial discovery." (A note about civil court: unlike with housing court, making an appearance here won't land you a spot on the so-called "tenant blacklist.") That said, if you're willing to risk a spot on the blacklist, you can withhold rent, wait for your landlord to take you to court, and again, get the documents as part of the pre-trial discovery. However in Supreme Court or Civil Court, the discovery is your right to pursue; in Housing Court, you will have to ask the court for permission to pursue discovery. It is generally, but not always, granted in cases like this.
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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.