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NYC Renters: Know Your Rights

If you’re moving to New York City, a lease agreement between you and your landlord is among the most significant agreements you’ll ever make.

That’s because it defines how you can use the apartment and how a landlord/owner is expected to maintain and protect the property. The following is an overview of the basic rights of NYC residents.

Always get it in writing

While leases are often in writing, oral agreements can occur, but we suggest that you always get everything in writing. That’s because a lease contains many details, including the terms and conditions of the rental – some of which can be negotiable, depending on the landlord. Occasionally, riders are added to a lease to govern such things as pets or access to laundry facilities, or to inform tenants of safety issues such as the possible presence of lead paint.

Generally, leases cannot be changed while they are in effect unless both you and the landlord agree. That’s why it’s important to make sure you understand your lease before you sign it. If you don’t understand the terms defined by your lease, have it reviewed by an attorney, or a friend or family member who has more renting experience than you.

Right to livable premises

All residents should expect that their homes are safe and fit for human habitation. Landlords of multiple-unit dwellings (three or more residential units) must ensure the building and grounds are in good repair, clean and free from vermin, rodents, dirt and garbage. Each bedroom in each apartment must have a functioning smoke detector. Building owners are legally required to provide heat during “heat season” (October 1 to May 31) and hot water year-round. If a landlord fails to provide such services or to repair poor living conditions, a tenant may report the problem to New York City’s Citizen Service Center by calling 311. (Read NYC Renter’s Rights to Heat and Hot Water).

Right to complain and organize

Tenants have a legal right to form, join or participate in a tenants’ organization for the purpose of protecting their rights. Landlords must allow these groups to meet in any community room on the premises for no cost – even if a fee is generally charged to use the space. Landlords may not harass or retaliate against any tenants who exercise these rights.

Right to possession, privacy

The landlord is required to make sure that the apartment is ready and available for move-in at the beginning of a tenant’s lease. If it’s not, the tenant won’t owe any rent until he is able to take possession. If the tenant chooses, he may cancel the lease if he lets the landlord know in writing before he is able to move in; the landlord must then return the tenant’s security deposit, prepaid rent or other deposit.

A landlord may not evict a tenant without a proper warrant of eviction. If the landlord changes the locks and doesn’t provide a new key, it is considered an unlawful eviction and should be reported to your local police precinct or brought to the New York City Housing Court. (Read the article, “I Sued My Landlord in Small Claims Court to Recover My Security Deposit and Won“).

Additionally, a tenant has a basic right to privacy. In New York City, a landlord may only enter a tenant’s apartment for three reasons:

  • Emergency repairs
  • Non-emergency repairs
  • Apartment inspections or to show the unit to prospective tenants.

Emergency repair requires no advance notice to the tenant. However, access for non-emergency repairs requires at least one week’s advance written notice, and access for inspection requires a minimum of 24 hours advance written notice.

Right to receive services

Tenants have a right to the basic services – heat, lights, elevator access, running water – implied in their lease. If a landlord is required to furnish utilities but is not paying the bills, the tenant may pay the utility company directly; those payments can be deducted from future rent payments.

Right to fair, equal treatment

New York City landlords may not refuse to rent to any person because of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, marital status, familial status, lawful occupation, sexual orientation, partnership status or immigration status. Those who have AIDS, are HIV positive or recovering alcoholics are also protected under the law. Landlords cannot discriminate against tenants based on lawful source of income, including Social Security benefits or any source of federal, state or local public assistance.

Landlords also must provide reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities so that they may enjoy equal access to the building and its features. These accommodations could include the use of a guide dog or minor structural modifications, such as a ramp leading to a shared laundry area.

Right to transfer rights, obligations

In dwellings with four or more residential units, tenants may sublease their apartments with the written consent of the landlord. The landlord cannot unreasonably withhold consent. If you believe you’ve been unreasonably denied the right to sublet, you can, at your own risk, proceed to sublet. If your landlord takes legal action, but you can prove he acted in bad faith, your legal fees must be reimbursed by the landlord (Read “How to Sublease Your Apartment”).

Be aware that the original tenant of a subleased unit remains legally responsible for damages or unpaid rent.

If you have questions about your rights as a tenant or believe your landlord may be in violation of the law, consult with a real estate attorney or with the housing pros in the State Attorney General’s Office, at the Department of Housing Preservation & Development.

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