Ask Sam: Our building was condemned after being damaged by construction next door. Who is supposed to help us?
I live in a rent-regulated building that was condemned as a result of structural damage from construction next door. Who is responsible for repairs: Our landlord or the builder who caused the damage? And if tenants have renter's insurance, does that relieve them of any duty to compensate or relocate us?
Even though the issue was caused by the developer of a neighboring building, your landlord is still responsible for taking steps to bring you and your neighbors back home, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer at the firm Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben & Joseph who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.
Himmelstein cites a similar case his firm handled in which a demolition caused significant damage to a nearby building.
“The Department of Buildings issued a vacate order, and we worked closely with the Tenant Protection Unit of New York's Department of Homes and Community Renewal to push the landlord to make the repairs,” Himmelstein says. “Ultimately all the tenants were restored to their apartments.”
Reaching out to this agency, or hiring an attorney who can do so on your behalf, can be very helpful in motivating your landlord to act quickly to fix the building’s defects. And it is the landlord’s responsibility to do this, even if they did not cause the damage themselves.
“Despite the fact that a third party caused the structural defect preventing occupancy, it’s still the landlord that tenants need to go after, not the third party,” said Jesse Gribben, a partner with HMGJ Law. “The landlord may or may not have a claim against the third party, but it’s their obligation to provide a habitable apartment to the tenants.”
If your landlord is dragging their feet when it comes to making repairs, you can file an HP action against the landlord in housing court to force them to act. The law is on your side if the DOB issued a vacate order, Himmelstein notes—when the city issues such an order, they’re also telling the landlord to make repairs.
In the meantime, you and your neighbors should definitely avail yourselves of your insurance.
“There’s a misconception that tenants shouldn’t have to use their insurance for property damage that wasn’t their fault,” Gribben says. “But you have insurance for instances like this, so go to your insurer, and let them fight it out for you with the landlord or developer.”
You also, of course, need to find temporary housing while your landlord makes the repairs. And while there is no legal statute requiring landlords to take charge of relocating tenants in situations like this one, you may be able to negotiate a relocation agreement with the help of an attorney.
“In the past we’ve been able to negotiate for landlords to relocate tenants to alternate apartments for the same stabilized rents,” Himmelstein says. “And if they don’t agree to do this, tenants could sue for the difference in rent they’re paying between their old and new apartments.”
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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.