By Alexander Lee
How to Navigate the Landlord–tenant Relationship During These Historic Times
Landlord–tenant relationships can be difficult to navigate even in normal times, and the coronavirus pandemic has placed immense pressures on both rent payers and rent collectors. We spoke to lawyers Elias Fillas and Luigi Brandimarte of Astoria’s own Sacco & Fillas LLP to get some tips for tenants who are experiencing friction with their landlord.
GMA: What should you do if your landlord raises your rent, but you simply can’t afford the increase due to the pandemic?
LB: Under New York City, they have these COVID relief programs. It doesn’t necessarily do anything with respect to rent increases; it’s more tailored to tenants who are in rent arrears. If the tenant cannot pay the arrears, they have these one-shot programs that they can apply for. They have the burden of proving that they cannot pay the rent because they lost their job because of COVID; there are documents that they would have to submit to the court to substantiate that defense.
EF: If any tenant is paying rent right now, they should be receiving a thank you card from the landlord. Most of the tenants right now are having a difficult time paying rent. Eventually, we’ll catch up, and the system will catch anyone who hasn’t been paying rent—but as Luigi said, you’ve got to prove a hardship.
GMA: Is there a way to mediate disputes with your landlord without going to court?
EF: If landlords don’t want to be in the court system for the next10-12 months, they’re going to want to figure out some kind of deal with their tenant. There are going to be some tenants who do the right thing and sit down with the landlord and figure out the right number that should be paid, and then there are other tenants who are going to take advantage of the system and prolong it as long as possible. Ultimately, it’s going to be up to that landlord–tenant relationship: that’s what’s going to define whether or not they’re going to be able to figure out their issue. But there’s no one right answer for these questions, because everything is very fact-sensitive; the solution is different according to whatever set of facts you’re dealing with.
GMA: As a tenant, what can you do to ensure you get your security deposit back, and what can you do if you move out and your landlord refuses to return the deposit?
LB: Before the laws changed in 2019, everything was up in the air, but with the new laws, a landlord can no longer accept more than one-month’s security—so if you have anyone who’s given two months, they can get it back. Within fourteen days after the tenant vacates, the landlord must provide the tenant with an itemized statement of the claimed conditions and the remaining portion of the security deposit. If the landlord fails to comply, the landlord will forfeit any claim to the deposit. The tenant can enforce these rights, usually in small claims court, and the Attorney General’s office takes security deposit issues pretty seriously.
GMA: How do you get your building to become rent stabilized?
LB: The real question is, how do you find a rent-stabilize apartment when these apartments are getting deregulated? More often than not, once you meet the fair market value for rent, these apartments do become deregulated. Then, if you’re the current tenant in that apartment, that protection is still afforded to you, but once you leave, that apartment can be free market rent.
GMA: Can your landlord evict you if you live on the first floor and your neighbors complain that you’re a nudist?
EF: The rule to live by is that everybody has a right to live their own lifestyle, but once your lifestyle starts to become an impediment to your neighbors, you’re just not being a good neighbor. And if you’re not a good neighbor, then it’s going to cause strife with the landlord. So, if you like to be a nudist and stand in front of your window naked, then it might be a problem for people walking by with their kids on the way to school.
LB: But I’ll turn that into a legal issue: if you have a lease, you may have a provision there that deals with that kind of issue, and then the landlord may send you a notice to cure, and then if you don’t cure it, they can try to evict you. But if there was no lease and just a month-to-month tenancy, then the landlord can evict you for no reason.
EF: The rule of thumb is to try to keep your clothes on.
GMA: Can you get evicted if you have a kangaroo in your apartment?
LB: A kangaroo is illegal, and if you’re doing something illegal, more likely than not, you could get evicted. And sometimes, when it comes with illegalities, the District Attorney’s office gets involved as well. Once the District Attorney’s office gets involved with an illegal tenancy, then you’re out.