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Ask Sam: Can my landlord charge a fee at every renewal—and refuse to give me a copy of the lease?

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Question:

My mother's landlord charges her a $75 fee just to renew the lease each year, and when she signs, he never gives her a copy. What can we do to get a copy of the lease if we've asked for one and he won't give it to us?

Answer:

Unfortunately, unless your mother is in a rent-stabilized apartment, she doesn't have much recourse, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations

"In a market-rate apartment, there's nothing illegal about a fee," says Himmelstein. And if your mother doesn't pay it, the landlord can always opt not to renew her lease.

As for the physical copy of the lease, though her landlord is in the wrong not to have provided your mother with a copy, getting them to actually comply might be delicate.

"I think you have to tread very carefully in terms of getting a copy of the lease," says Himmelstein. "A lease in a market-rate building isn't binding until it's signed by both parties and delivered, so technically that means your mother doesn't have a lease right now, unless she got it when the landlord had already signed." And even in that case, without a copy, she doesn't have much proof that both she and the landlord signed the lease.

"The lesson here is that tenants should always make a copy of the lease [after signing and before sending it back]," Himmelstein advises. 

But in your current situation, the best thing to do is send a letter or email politely requesting a copy. "I would include some detail, such as the commencement and end dates and rent amount set out in the lease," says Himmelstein. If the landlord refuses, there's not much remedy beyond withholding rent and winding up in housing court, where the landlord would be forced to produce a copy of the lease. And that method, of course, could end up getting your mother kicked out of the apartment when the time for the next renewal rolls around.

If the apartment were rent-stabilized, though, all this would be different—the renewal fee would be illegal, and your mother would be able to file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Community Renewal for non-renewal of her lease.

"This is just another example of how tenants in market-rate apartments are totally at the mercy of their landlords," Himmelstein says. "Rent-stabilization is about more than just cheap rent, it's about all the extra protections against eviction that come along with it."

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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.

 

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