Research the deeds and mortgages filed for your building to find out if it's a horizontal multiple dwelling. 

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Question:

I live in a low-rise rental building that is attached to similar buildings. I read that this could mean it is considered a “horizontal multiple dwelling” and may be rent stabilized. How do I find out if this is the case?

Answer:

When a building has fewer than six units but is combined with neighboring buildings that are financially, legally, and physically connected, it may be rent-stabilized, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer with the firm Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben & Joseph who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.

Rent-stabilization status applies to buildings that were built before July 1st, 1974 and have six or more apartments, and to some buildings that were built after that date and have received tax abatements.

But then there are some buildings that have fewer than six units and seem to be market-rate—except they are attached to neighboring properties and are therefore “horizontal multiple dwellings” that meet the requirements for rent-stabilized status because the total number of apartments in the buildings is six or more.

“It’s more common than you would think,” Himmelstein says. “You have these situations where buildings are attached to each other and share physical attributes, like a heating system, a basement, and utilities. Sometimes there is a connected roof, and the buildings have been sold and mortgaged together, or are on a common tax lot.”

Courts treat these kinds of attached buildings as a single property for purposes of calculating the number of apartments. And if the buildings went up before 1974 and have more than six apartments total, the courts hold that the tenants living there should be rent-stabilized.                                                                                                                      

However, in many cases the landlords of these properties have been charging their tenants market-rate rent. In one case, Himmelstein’s firm represented five tenants in three downtown buildings that were clearly a horizontal multiple dwelling and should have been stabilized. The landlord settled, and the tenants obtained rent-stabilization status, received rent rollbacks, and recovered the rent they had been overcharged, as well as their attorney’s fees.

If you suspect your building is a horizontal multiple dwelling and you’ve been wrongly charged market-rate rent, start by doing some research.

“Go onto ACRIS and look at what’s on file for each building, like the deeds and mortgages, which get filed with the city,” Himmelstein says. “If they were all filed at the same time, that shows a financial and legal connection.”

Your next step should be to hire an engineer, who can determine whether the buildings have common physical attributes. If they do, it’s time to speak to an attorney.

“Write a letter asserting your rent-stabilization status and send it to the landlord,” Himmelstein says. “But it’s rare that this will result in the landlord agreeing that you’re stabilized. You will need to hire a lawyer and file a declaratory judgment action in state supreme court, seeking a declaration that the building is a horizontal multiple dwelling and therefore you’re seeking rent-stabilization status, lower rents, recovery of overcharges, and damages.”

Most of the time, these cases are settled out of court, he said. But sometimes these cases end up in court because the landlord sues the tenants.

“Tenants come to us because the landlord is bringing a holdover case against them, claiming they are not rent stabilized and can be evicted,” Himmelstein says. “We investigate and if we determine that the tenants are in a horizontal multiple dwelling, we defend the case in housing court on the grounds that they are in fact stabilized.”

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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 & 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.

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