Ask Sam: Our landlord won't renew our lease and we think it's because we have a kid. What can we do?
We just found out that our landlord will not renew our lease and we think it is because we have a child. When we previously renewed our lease, our rent increase was double our neighbor's increase, even though we live in same-size units. Prior to having a baby, our rent increases were the same as our neighbors. Is there anything we can do?
This may be an instance of housing discrimination, in which case you could start by filing a complaint against your landlord, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben & Joseph who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.
The New York City Human Rights Law prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of having children, in addition many other factors, like race, religion, and age. There are also anti-housing discrimination laws in place at the state and federal levels.
Note that unlike market-rate tenants, rent-stabilized tenants have additional protections, including the right to have their leases renewed (with some specific exceptions) and strict caps on rent increases.
If you suspect you’re being discriminated against by your landlord, you have a number of options, but your best bet is to start by filing a complaint with the New York City Human Rights Commission.
In the long-term, if you successfully prove discrimination, the HRC can require the landlord to rent the apartment to you, impose fines on the landlord of up to $250,000, and award you compensatory damages, as well as your attorney’s fees.
There may be an even quicker path to holding onto your apartment, though.
“The downside is that this can be a very lengthy process,” says David Hershey-Webb, a partner at HMGJ law. “If you have an attorney write to the landlord on your behalf informing them of the law and threatening to file a complaint, in many cases the landlord will do the right thing because they don’t want to be on record as engaging in discrimination.”
There are possible defenses for landlords accused of discrimination. In some instances, landlords may be able to convince the HRC or courts that they are declining to renew the lease for non-discriminatory reasons—for instance, because the tenant has repeatedly damaged the property, or is causing disturbances that rise to the level of a legal nuisance.
For your part, if you file a complaint with the HRC or hire an attorney, they will conduct an investigation on your behalf. And it’s also worthwhile to talk to your neighbors and confirm that those without children are not being denied lease renewals.
Because investigating a discrimination complaint can take a long time, it’s likely your lease will expire during the process. If you decide to stay in the apartment, your landlord could begin the process of evicting you.
“The filing of a complaint doesn’t stay the commencement of a holdover proceeding, so the tenant will probably have to go to court,” Hershey-Webb says. “We’ve had many cases where the holdover was started and then stayed, pending determination of the discrimination complaint.”
And if your landlord does sue to evict you in housing court, you can raise a discrimination claim in your defense, and it’s possible the court may dismiss the case entirely.
But even if you prevail in housing court, there’s a downside: You will end up on the tenant blacklist, which can make it difficult to rent a new apartment in the future.
There’s another practical issue to filing a discrimination case: the matter of how much time and money you want to spend on this. Winning the case doesn’t mean you’ll get to stay in the apartment forever; your landlord may decline to renew your lease in the future at a point when it’s difficult to prove discrimination.
“If it’s not a rent-stabilized apartment and you’re not planning to live there for the rest of your life, you might be better off spending your time and money finding a building where your child will be welcome,” 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 & 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.