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Dear Sam: My building's elevator has been unreliable for weeks now— we have to call the super to fix it at least four times a week. I live on a high floor and have small children, so this is a big inconvenience. The super has to wait for mechanics to come and fix it, and the management doesn't do much more than vaguely acknowledge the problem. Is there anything we can do here, and could we expect compensation for this ongoing inconvenience?
Inconvenient though it may be, your elevator problem might be tough to fight if you're not rent-stabilized, though it will help if you rally the support of your neighbors, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.
"As with any situation affecting the habitability of the buiding, I urge tenants to try to deal with these things as a group if they can," says Himmelstein, who recommends forming a tenant association. (More tips on that process here.) "In every way it makes you more powerful, and if you eventually have to spend money on an attorney, doing it as a group makes it more affordable, and makes it harder for the landlord to retaliate."
And unfortunately, if you're not protected by rent stabilization, there is a good chance your landlord will retaliate against you for complaints, even though that's illegal, notes Himmelstein's colleague Janet Kalson. Whether they do this via harassment, ending your lease when it's up for renewal, or enacting a steep rent hike, "The problem is that it’s very hard to prove retaliation and the remedy is just a one-year lease renewal," says Himmelstein.
First off, Kalson recommends researching your building's history of complains on the DoB website to get a sense of how long this problem has been going on. You should also start by reporting the problem to 311, which should send an inspector to assess the situation, and will issue violations to the landlord if necessary. (Calling 311 has the added upside of allowing you to remain anonymous.) You should also start keep a log of the dates and times when the elevator service cuts out, and how long it lasts.
As for compensation, if the problem is extreme enough, you'll likely have a good case to break your lease early, but the only way you're likely to get cash is if you negotiate a deal with the landlord or simply withhold rent, the latter of which could land you in court—and on the tenant blacklist.
If your calls to 311 and/or complaints to the landlord as a tenants' association don't fix the problem, the next step is to file an HP action seeking a court order for the landlord to repair the broken elevator.
And if you're a stabilized tenant, you can also file a reduction of services complaint, which will get rent in the building rolled back to whatever it was before the most recent rent hike, and frozen at that price until the problem is truly resolved.
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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.