The Tenant Who Threatened to Sue the Landlord and Got His Rent Reduced

by Brendan O’Connor


Welcome to Surreal Estate, a new column in which we will explore listings and stories from the tumultuous New York City real estate market.

Menahan Street and Myrtle Avenue
Two bedrooms, one bathroom
Nearest subway: L/M trains at Myrtle-Wyckoff Avenues

A little over a year ago, a young couple moved from California to Bushwick. They are, to use the verbiage of our day, “creatives”; he is a musician and she is a photographer. They pay the rent by laboring in the service industry. And they recently threatened to sue their landlord.

When they moved into the two-bedroom apartment — one bedroom has been converted into an office — mice and rats flowed from under the radiator. “I had to fight for that pretty hard,” the man, who did not want to be identified because the couple still lives in the same building with the same superintendent and the same landlord, told me. “First, I called the super. He put foam under the radiator, but they can eat right through it, so that didn’t really work.”

As predicted, the rats ate through the foam. The man called the super and insisted on a more permanent solution to the problem. “He was like, ‘Oh, I’m not able to do that this week. But next week!’” The man did not accept this. “I’m like, ‘Well, I’m gonna call the landlord if you can’t come this week, because we had a huge rat in our living room yesterday.” Article 151 of the New York City Health Code mandates that property owners are responsible for preventing and controlling “the harborage and free movement” of rats and other pests. After another week of calling, the super and the landlord came to the apartment, took measurements, and laid a grate down underneath the radiator. “Nothing’s gotten through since,” the man said.

One night last week, at around midnight — when it was still very, very cold — the building lost heat and power. It didn’t come back for three days. No other building on the block lost power. When the landlord wasn’t able to bring it back, the man called 311 “to find out what my rights are, what I could take him to court for.”

All New York City tenants in are entitled to both heat and hot water. According to the Housing Preservation & Development website, property owners are required to provide hot water (“at a constant minimum temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit”) year-round. Moreover, the period between October 1st and May 31st is referred to as “Heat Season.” During this time, property owners are required to fulfill the following conditions:

Between the hours of 6:00 AM and 10:00 PM, if the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees, the inside temperature is required to be at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit; and,

Between the hours of 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM, if the temperature outside falls below 40 degrees, the inside temperature is required to be at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to the HPD website, there have been nearly two hundred thousand heat complaints so far this Heat Season, up from over a hundred and eighty-one thousand last year. On January 8th, there were nearly fifty-three hundred complaints — the highest volume day this year. The good people on the other end of 311 told the man that his landlord was “in violation of several counts, including lack of repair and lack of code enforcement,” and that he was welcome to come down to the courthouse, pay a forty-five-dollar filing fee and initiate the complaint process against his landlord. “Most people probably don’t have time to do that,” the man said. He’s been working for a catering company, and work had been slow. “If I was working full-time those four days, there’s no way I could have taken care of it.”

Armed with knowledge of his rights, the man insisted that the landlord agree to a rent reduction, signed and in letter format, or else they would sue. Throughout this dispute, the landlord consistently deflected responsibility, the man said. “He was like, ‘Oh, it’s not my fault, you’re getting mad at the wrong person.’ I’m like, ‘Mmm, no. It’s your property, it’s your responsibility.” But, he told me, when Con Edison first came to the building they found a rat corpse and rat feces in the basement, “so that was a further delay on the process.” After three days, power was restored, and the landlord agreed to waive rent for the duration the building had gone without it.

The man believes that this landlord — and others like him — take particular advantage of tenants who either don’t know their rights or feel they cannot advocate for themselves. In his building, there are families who are recent arrivals to the United States, and for whom English is not their first language. “I think that he’s definitely preying on them, taking advantage of them,” he said. “It’s not right, and I’m so thankful that I’ve grown up in relative privilege and know what I can do and how to advocate for myself. But, you know, these families don’t know necessarily how to defend themselves.” Despite this deep and abiding concern for the rights of his fellow tenants, the man admitted that he only communicated with his downstairs neighbors during this situation.

The man and his fiancé are thinking about finding a new place to live, but moving is expensive. They seem resigned to their situation, for the short term, anyway. When I asked how they ended up in this apartment in the first place, he told me that when they moved to New York, neither of them had a job and were living off his savings while staying in an Airbnb. They found this place, and this landlord, and felt like he was helping them out by letting them sign a lease. “I don’t know if anybody else would have let us move in,” he said, referring to the fact that neither he nor his fiance had any proof of income at the time. “So that was nice of him, to do us that favor.”

Then, he added, “I guess we were sort of doing him a favor too, though, because he was charging us more for rent than anybody else in the building.”

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Photo by Rebecca Smith