HMGDJ wins big for tenants living with inadequate fire safety protections

Laws change. Building/housing codes change. Apartments get renovated. These things are all a matter of life in New York City, but how they intersect matters - especially for the tenants.

Take for example a recent consolidated case, argued and won by our own Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph LLP attorney, Jesse Gribben. Due to his efforts, an entire building of tenants will not be required to pay rent until their landlord obtains a valid certificate of occupancy.

Background: 19 tenants enforce their right to refuse

Every NYC landlord must have a valid Certificate of Occupancy ("C of O") to legally own and operate an apartment building. This C of O is issued based on the existing building codes. While it may remain in effect for many years, a landlord must obtain a new "C of O" when they make alterations to the building.

In this case, a "C of O" was issued for the building in 1970. Fast forward to the present decade. The tenants organized and formed a tenants association and decided to withhold rent in an effort to put an end to living in conditions that constituted pervasive violations of the existing housing code. They organized a rent strike, refusing to pay until the landlord addressed the violations.

Trial Court: Judge determines that none of the tenants were required to pay rent

The Tenant Association, consisting of tenants residing in 19 individual apartments, sought representation and took legal action. Upon investigation into the issue, our legal team determined that, among other issues, the building had been altered since the 1970 "C of O" had been issued.

Specifically, the building that once had 53 apartments was reconfigured to make room for 60 apartments, the majority of which didn't have the two independent means of egress required under the current Building Code. The code exists to protect tenants in the event of fire. Illustrating how dangerous the current configuration of the building is, the DOB has required the presence of 24/7 fire guards as a condition of continued occupancy.

This alteration and violation of fire safety law and code became the basis of the case and ultimately the decision in favor of the tenants.

In November 2016, Judge Schneider issued her ruling. She found that the landlord did not have a valid "C of O" for the building. The result was that the landlord could not collect the back-pay for the 19 tenants who refused to pay their rent. In addition, the judge ruled that no tenants in the building were required to pay rent and that the landlord could not legally attempt to collect it until he brought the building up to current code and obtained a new "C of O."

Conclusion: The appellate court upholds the ruling

The landlord appealed the decision, but it held. Attorney Jesse Gribben fought for his clients, and on May 7, 2019, the Appellate Division, 1st Dept., affirmed the lower courts' ruling.

  • Yes, the alterations were substantial.
  • Yes, the "C of O" was invalid as a result. 
  • Yes, the landlord was barred from collecting rent under Section 302 (1) of NYC's Multiple Dwelling Law.

No tenant should live in substandard or unsafe conditions. If you are a tenant in this situation, it is your right to speak up and seek help to enforce your rights.

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