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Ask Sally, A Tenants' Rights Attorney: Is My Rent Too Damn High?

Hello, again

photo by Cat Agonis

Hello, again. It's been a while. Nice to see you.

This week...err, month (it's been a busy summer), I'll address a reader question which touches on one of the most important subjects for New York City tenants.

HOW DO I KNOW IF THE RENT RAISE MY LANDLORD IS ASKING FOR IS TOO HIGH?

Your lease is up, or maybe you never had a lease. Your landlord calls you up and says all of the sudden you owe him $300.00 more a month. Is this fair? By how much a Brooklyn landlord can raise your rent? Which laws protect you?

A reader question excerpted below specifically talks about rent control--a set of rent laws that keeps rents low.  I know a lot of you are probably thinking, "I'm not rent-controlled," and you're about to stop reading.   Well, you'd probably be right. You probably aren't rent-controlled, but there is a really good chance that you ARE rent-stabilized. Rent stabilization is another form of rent regulation that prevents unaffordable rent hikes.

There are some simple steps to find out if there's a chance you've been living in a regulated apartment and didn't know it.  You might be able to prevent a huge rent increase on your next renewal, or even get a refund on an illegally high rent your landlord was already charging you.  Can you focus for, like, 3 more minutes?

The reader who sent in this week's letter became aware that others in her building were "rent-controlled," and wrote to find out if it was possible that she might be, too. I've deleted parts of her letter that may make her identity apparent to her landlord.

"Hey Sally! Saw your article on BD. Thought I'd ask my question:

I was recently informed by my downstairs neighbors (who have lived here 30 years and pay 450/mo rent) that the building we currently live in is rent controlled. Apparently their aunt lived in the top unit 4 years ago (since she left and sold the building, that space has been subdivided, and I live in 1 of the 2 apartments) I sent a letter into the State of NY Dept of Housing Community Renewal to receive the previous owner/tenant rates and find out if, in fact, our building is rent controlled.

Turns out the building is in fact rent controlled - and the previous renter to our apartment who was the owner of the building, was paying $450.00 a month (we are the first since it was subdivided into 2 apartments, and each of the tenants pay $1650.00/mo for the same space).

I've read up on rent controlled building and tried to figure out how much the landlord is allowed to raise rent to the next renter, raise rent based on investment into the building, and what the renter has to be paying for the building to exit from rent control (+2k/mo)

So my question is - is it going to be worth it for me to pursue my rent controlled rate of rental?? Ive heard of years and years of fights only to arrive at the conclusion that the rent was to be frozed and no debt owed to the tenant. I'd really love to get some of that money back if possible, but just want to know what my chances are here. Any input?'

WHAT IS YOUR RENT SUPPOSED TO BE?

Dear Subdivided,

Whether or not you could get money back depends on what your legal regulated rent should actually be. The rent you are paying now may be too high. In rent regulated apartments, there will be a limit on the percentage a landlord can increase your rent in the future. This is dictated by the Rent Guidelines Board, who deliberate and issue the percentage increases for allowable rent raises every year.  There are, of course, exceptions.  Read On.

A lot of of information about being rent stabilized can be found on the State's website.

In NYC, if you live in a building built before 1974 and there are six units or more, there is a very good chance your building is covered by rent regulation.

The huge spike in rents in Bushwick is due to demand, but it is also due to the fact that most of the newcomers are unaware of their rights.   Bushwick landlords are more than happy to take advantage of that by gouging you. It is routine for me and my colleagues to hear from tenants about landlords who have concealed or mislead the new tenant into believing they are not rent-regulated.  Landlords very often offer leases that make NO MENTION OF A TENANT'S RIGHTS TO RENT STABILIZATION.  How do they get away with this? Because overseeing your rights under rent stabilization is almost entirely up to you, the tenant. Until the creation of the DHCR's Tenant Protection Unit, there was very little oversight.

Subdivided, your unit is almost surely not rent-controlled, but rent-stabilized. People (like The New York Times) make this mistake all the time. Rent control covers units that were built before 1947 and have been occupied by the same family since 1971 which was probably before you were born.  Rent control has different rules allowing for increases which tend to keep the rents lower than rent stabilization.   Rent stabilization allows for increases that are voted on in a public forum every year.

Anyway, according to the requirements of rent stabilization, a landlord must register the rents in a stabilized unit with the state Division of Housing & Community Renewal (DHCR), as you've already discovered.

HOW TO FIND OUT IF YOU ARE RENT STABILIZED

Readers who want to see if they could be rent stabilized by looking at the rent registration for their apartment should email rentinfo@nyshcr.org and state their address, their unit number, and that they want a copy of their registration history mailed to them at the apartment. They should also state the name of a tenant on the lease.

By looking at this registration history, a tenant can tell if the landlord has charged them an illegal increase in the amount of rent. Here is a guide to legal increases in rent.

There are a few ways that a landlord can take an apartment out of coverage of rent stabilization. These include both temporary exemptions and permanant ones. A unit can be temporarily exempt while a landlord or his employee lives in the unit. A unit can be permanantly exempt upon the signing of a new lease with a new tenant where the rent has been properly increased to $2,500.00 or higher. Check out the links above to find out about some more ways.

The truth is, there are many laws and cases that determine your rights as rent stabilized tenant. I couldn't possibly summarize them here. Still, the most important thing to be aware of is that LOTS OF PEOPLE HAVE THESE RIGHTS BUT DON'T EXERCISE THEM. So, if a reader lives in a building that has 6 units,  s/he should email away for the rent registration.  If you think the rent has jumped up more than the legal increases would allow, check out this guide to filing overcharge claims: http://www.kbhawco.com/memo2.html It's slightly dated, but gives you the basic outlines of your options.

Also, if the space you are renting is half of the number of rooms that your rent registration states it is, you should file for a rent reduction at the DHCR since you have been denied the use of half of the space.  You can find that form on DHCR's website.

For any of you readers out there that have misgivings about being a contributing part of gentrification, remember that by exercising your rights and preventing landlords from illegally profiting on your rent, you lessen the pressure on long-term tenants whose rent has been kept affordable by rent stabilization.

I hope this has been more clarifying than confusing.   Please write to me with your questions at sally@bushwickdaily.com.   Now that the summer is over and the new muggy Fall has started, I'll have more time stuck inside to read and answer your questions.  And remember, I am not your lawyer and this is not legal advice.

Bushwick Daily Newsletter

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