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My building's had an illegal, hazardous gas hookup for years. Can I get a rent abatement?

By Virginia K. Smith | September 12, 2016 - 9:59AM 

For almost two years, I've lived in a gut-renovated building in Queens. When a neighbor's stove stopped working, the National Grid technician was horrified to find that the building's three meters were hooked up to the building's four apartments, and that the wrong kind of connector had been used. ("Remember that building in Harlem that exploded?" is how he put it.) Am I entitled to a rent reimbursement or abatement for living with a life-threatening hazard for so long?


While your landlord was certainly in the wrong, you may not be entitled to reimbursement for the rent you've paid while unknowingly staying in a dangerous situation, say our experts.

"The issue is that this is a breach of the Warranty of Habitability, because the landlord has allowed a condition to exist that's dangerous to life, health, and safety," says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. "But since it never resulted in a problem, how do you quantify the damages?"

Given that you weren't affected by the dubious meter hookup, it may be hard to get recourse. Himmelstein explains: "For example, say you were crossing the street and a car blew threw a red light and hit you. If you were seriously injured, you'd be awarded damages, but if you weren't, courts generally don't award damages because someone else did something wrong, unless their actions harmed you in some way." 

However, Himmelstein's colleague Matthew Chachere notes that tenants sometimes have been awarded abatements for similar violations like lead paint, where no one suffered any health issues, but the mere presence of the problem ended up resulting in a rent abatement. 

This is far from a sure thing, Chachere notes, as there's no clear method for quantifying what you might be owed in this scenario, and he adds, "I've seen court decisions all over the map on this. It seems to be a crap shoot." 

Bottom line: While your landlord messed up in a very serious way, this likely isn't worth the headache of a potentially fruitless legal battle.

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