By Joseph Turco, Esq.
The battle between landlords and tenants is epic. It’s like a jungle, where the landlord predator can smell weakness from a mile away.
In my April 2017 article in WestView News, “Landlords: From Best to Worst (and So Much in Between),” I wrote about a longtime West Village tenant, Lydia Martinez. Her family had owned La Sangria back when Flamenco was regularly performed at their Hudson Street restaurant. Lydia’s residential landlord, Time Equities (owner/manager of 150 buildings City-wide), claimed that a mere four late rent payments constituted a breach of her rent-regulated lease. Hogwash. Once we responded in court with counterclaims for the landlord’s failure to make required repairs, they backed down and withdrew the case against her.
Any lawyer will tell you that you must assert the “warranty of habitability” defense whenever you can, and that’s what we did against Time Equities. That means that when a landlord uses your rent arrears as a basis for eviction, you break out the list of complaints and requests to repair. These requests are useful later in court, especially when they are ignored.
Our case against Time Equities was successful because of Lydia’s good record-keeping, and her respectful vigilance when complaining by text and calling 311 when a report was justified. (Is it just me or is 311 a much better service now than it was in the past?) The bottom line is that an empowered tenant makes all the difference (consult the Tenant Rights and Responsibilities section at NYC.gov).
A new case on our docket involves rent-controlled apartments on West 10th Street, where a landlord named Julian Whiting appears to be bucking for a place on the Public Advocate’s ‘Notorious Landlords’ List. Readers should be aware that, in addition to the common defenses and actions available to tenants in the City’s housing courts, New York State law provides complaint forms and hearing officers if you feel that you’ve been retaliated against, denied service, harassed, or denied a lease renewal. All of the above seem to have happened in Mr. Whiting’s buildings.
As usual, record-keeping and due diligence will come in handy at our upcoming hearing in that case, where it’s alleged that the landlord had been deceitful and malicious regarding a rent-controlled apartment. That should be a red flag for anyone concerned about preserving affordable housing. Our client is fighting back at the New York State agency, Division of Homes and Community Renewal, whose main City-wide office is in Queens (visit NYSHCR.org for more information).
Elsewhere in the Village, it is not a landlord raising our concern this week, but a cooperative board (co-op), which is sometimes worse, especially when that co-op is badly managed and its financials are in disarray. If your co-op board has not held a board meeting in years, leaves shareholders in the dark about important matters, or neglects its responsibilities, it is important to strike back and assert claims and defenses early. As for common areas, outer walls, structural issues like foundation and roof problems, and services like plumbing and electric, the co-op board is responsible for all of it. That board will be held to the same standard as any other landlord in this regard.
So, shareholders and residents, take note: The greatest arrow in any tenant’s quiver—complaining about problems and demanding repairs—is available to any shareholder or resident in a co-op when the board is suing for unpaid common charges.
They say when it comes to landlords, I like “stickin’ it to the man,” which is true, but I also take pleasure in negotiating amicable settlements, which we did recently with landlord Ken Friedman of Christopher Street. As landlords go, Ken is a pretty decent guy, agreeing to a concession that he did not have to, proving that there is some kindness among the 1%.
I hope to write a future article with positive conclusions to these and other cases. Sometimes landlords do see the light and are compelled to behave better. That’s usually because the tenant or his/her advocate displays a stiff upper lip, a thick skin, and a strong spine—all necessary to survive in the jungle.
For more information on New York City housing rights, visit metcouncilonhousing.org.