Landlords will often rent apartments to tenants claiming that they are not rent stabilized when in fact they are. In two recent cases, the Housing Court found for the tenants. Ron Languedoc represented the tenant in Raywood. Sam Himmelstein and Ron Languedoc represented the tenant in Shomron.
If my apartment was damaged do I have to pay the full rent? NO. Depending on the extent of the damage, you may be entitled to a rent "abatement" or reduction of the rent that you were required to pay. Under New York law the landlord must provide you with a habitable apartment. It does not matter if the damage to your apartment was not the fault of the landlord. This is called the "Warranty of Habitability." In order to get a reduction in your rent, unless the landlord is willing to reduce your rent voluntarily, you have two options, one requiring going to housing court. To get a rent abatement through housing court you will have to withhold all or part of your rent. The landlord will then bring a proceeding in housing court to evict you for not paying your rent. When your serve your "Answer" to the court proceeding, you will list as a defense that there are repairs that have to be done. You will also list as a "counterclaim" that you are entitled to an abatement of your rent. You will have to prove to the court that there is damage to your apartment and that the landlord had notice of the damage. It is always better to have an attorney if you go to housing court. But even without an attorney you could get an abatement of your rent.
In the frenzied rush to rent an apartment in NYC, tenants often rely solely on the representations of brokers, managing agents, and landlords about the type of building they are about to rent. Many of today's tenants assume they are "deregulated" tenants, or tenants not subject to rent control or rent stabilization, and landlords do nothing to disabuse a tenant of the assumption, perhaps relying on a murky history that the tenant's apartment was deregulated because it was used for professional reasons or rented by an owner in the past. Don't assume your apartment is deregulated without checking because there are significant benefits to being a rent regulated tenant, including reasonable rent increases and generally, life-time tenure in the apartment.
There are two popular misconceptions that many non-lawyers (and maybe even some lawyers) have about the law. One is that there is a "right" and "wrong" answer to every legal question. Another is that the legal system is a place to find justice. Regarding the first misconception, clients sometimes say to me "doesn't the judge have to find in our favor because that is the law?" But the law is not a science; it is more of an art. Law is a matter of interpretation and different judges can interpret things different ways. As the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan famously said, the law is whatever five justices on the Supreme Court say it is!
Last week the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to New York's rent stabilization laws, Harmon v. Kimmel, brought by an Upper West Side landlord. In the case landlord James Harmon argued that the rent laws amounted to a "taking" of property in violation of the U.S. Constitution because he is unable to evict without cause the tenants in his brownstone. Although the law has long been settled in this area, there was some concern given the willingness of the current Supreme Court to reconsider and reverse long-term precedents. New York City and New York State submitted briefs defending the rent laws based upon longstanding precedent. The real estate community blanketed the court with "amicus" briefs which apparently did not sway the justices. The real estate community also organized a media blitz resulting in many news articles about the alleged "unfairness" of the rent laws. Tenants must remain ever vigilant and organized to preserve the rent laws which the real estate industry will continue to attack on legal, political and media fronts as long as there are bigger profits to be made.