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My building has a gas leak and now the gas is shut off to all the apartments. Our landlord seems to be dragging his feet. What can we do? And are we entitled to an abatement?
Your best bet for getting the gas turned back on quickly, and for receiving a rent abatement in the meantime, is to form a tenants’ association, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph, who represents residential, commercial tenants, and tenant associations.
New York City’s gas companies and the Department of Buildings have become more cautious in their response to leaks in recent years, in the wake of several gas explosions and fires due to aging pipes in city buildings.
“They have gotten much stricter about what they do when they find a gas leak,” Himmelstein says. “They’ll order all the gas shut off, and conduct a roof-to-basement inspection to see if there are leaks anywhere.”
The inspection can be time-consuming, and if other leaks are found, repairing them may also take quite a while.
So your landlord may legitimately be trying to get the gas in your building repaired—although sometimes in rent-regulated buildings, Himmelstein says, landlords have used gas shut-offs and delaying restoration of the gas as harassment to push out stabilized tenants.
Whatever the case, it’s important to form a tenants association. Joining forces with your neighbors gives you greater negotiating power, and also lets you to split the costs of hiring an attorney.
As a group represented by an attorney, Himmelstein says, you’ll almost always be able to get a rent abatement.
“Gas is a required service, and having it shut off forces you to incur additional expenses,” he says. “A typical abatement is 15 to 20 percent of rent, and usually we can negotiate it to be retroactive to when the gas was first shut down.”
You may also need to start an HP proceeding—a housing court proceeding that forces landlords to make repairs—in order to put pressure on your landlord to get the gas back on.
“When HPD places a gas violation on a building, it typically says the gas has to be turned back on within 30 or less days, but landlords rarely do that,” Himmelstein says. “But if you bring a court case, the court will issue an order that the landlord has to fix it in a certain amount of days. And settlements often include rent abatements and reimbursement of legal fees.”
With the power of a court order behind you, the landlord is more likely to act, because they could be held in contempt and face financial consequences if they don’t get the gas back on in time.
Some landlords may try to avoid legal battles over gas by switching their buildings to electric. In rent-stabilized buildings, they must get the permission of the DHCR in order to do this. The DHCR usually grants such requests, and uses a formula to reduce the rent if electric power ends up costing more than gas.
Whatever route your landlord takes, getting legal representation for yourself and your neighbors is key.
“Having a judge oversee the process puts additional pressure on landlords, so that’s what we recommend,” Himmelstein says.
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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.