Welcome back to another edition of “NY Stories,” a recurring feature about successes (and failures) at the hands of New York City real estate.
I was living in a great one-bedroom in the East Village, renting directly from the owner. The place was a dream – prewar building, pet-friendly, recently renovated and all carefully decorated in my favorite palettes and prints. At the time, I was working as an interior designer so the place really did look great!
After my first year renting, I decided to stay. But instead of renewing the lease, I just sent a check every month to my landlord, Will, to his restaurant in Williamsburg and left it at that. Will and I had a very unorthodox tenant-landlord relationship, so I wasn’t surprised that this informal set-up worked without a hitch. We were pretty friendly after all — he’d come by the apartment from time to time, we’d text and message each other occasionally; things all seemed good between us, if informal.
After about three years, Will decided to sell the unit and I needed to move out. I was fine with it and was looking forward to moving to my next place in Chelsea. I had moved four times in the city already and though no move is a walk in the park, at that point in my career as a New York City mover and renter, I knew the ropes and didn’t expect it to be too much of a hassle. And besides, Will and I were pals and I was sure we’d keep all the logistical details easy breezy.
Ah, hindsight is 20-20.
What came next
I left multiple messages for Will letting him know what day I was planning to move out. Since things were so casual between us, I wasn’t sure what the protocol was but figured it would be best to let him know both out of courtesy and to cover my bases. He never got back to me, which I didn’t take offense to necessarily, but just thought weird given that we were friendly and had communicated regularly before.
Come moving day, guess who’s at the front door of my apartment? Will. I was surprised, but in some ways relieved. I was going on vacation to Florida and there were a couple of things I was hoping to store in the basement and I wanted to get Will’s signoff. As ever, Will was chill with the proposition and helped me lug my stuff downstairs. The plan was that I would return in two weeks, pick up my stuff and return my keys to the super, Alfredo.
Fresh off the plane from LGA and ready to settle into Chelsea after vacation, I headed back to Sixth Street to pick up the last of my belongings and drop off the keys. Neither Will nor Alfredo were anywhere to be found, so I just slipped the keys under Alfredo’s door.
I never got confirmation that either of them received the keys, but I didn’t start to worry until weeks passed and I still hadn’t received my security deposit back. I sent Will an email, no response. I left a message on his cell. No response. I sent another email. Left several messages. Sent him an embarrassing number of texts. I even resorted to MySpace. It felt like a break-up with a deadbeat boyfriend.
I called his restaurant and learned it had closed – a serious telltale sign things were bad.
Months passed and still the security deposit never showed up. My determination to track down Will came in fits and starts. I would get a burst of energy, barrage Will with texts, voicemails, emails, and yes, MySpace messages. And then I would give up until I started the cycle of voicemails, emails, texts all over again and all left unanswered.
After nine months of this, I contacted a lawyer who advised that I go through ACRIS to track Will down. I dove in headfirst. After several tedious Saturday afternoons scouring the website, I found a physical address for Will.
With a concrete address in hand, I was able to send him an official housing complaint. I nearly keeled over when a month later I received a hand-written letter in return. Not from Will himself, but from his father. After more than a year of complete non-communication from Will, I’d take what I could get.
The letter, however, was far from a confession of fault. In fact, it was a countercharge suing me for damages done to the apartment and was grounds for withholding the security deposit. It was a bogus claim and I could prove it. My legal counsel agreed and I decided to meet Will in small claims court. Little did I know that a year later, this saga was just the beginning.
ACRIS can be compared to a Sisyphean struggle, but small claims court is nothing short of Dante’s purgatory — a miserable, bureaucratic holding zone where the dregs of the universe clog into a poorly lit, low-ceilinged government office on Centre Street to await judgment on matters amounting to no more than $5,000.
We showed up to small claims court four times over two years – each time spending a few hours in the evenings in the waiting room hoping our case would get called, each time being met with disappointment. At each juncture, our court date was rescheduled for 2-3 months down the road.
The two-year delay, however, afforded me to time to research the proceedings of small claims court and come up with rebuttals for each of Will’s accusations.
The day Will and I went before the judge, I was ready with a cache of my unanswered emails, photographs of the apartment and prepared defenses. Will, on the other hand, showed up with nothing. He didn’t have a single document backing up his claims and during the trial proceeded to make up further false claims, including:
- Claims I disabled the security system by changing the password.
Not true: A little research into the building’s security system shows that the account holder – in this case, Will – has the sole authority to reset the password.
- Claims I left holes in the wall from hanging pictures.
Research ‘normal wear and tear’ – the common parlance on any lease describing acceptable damages to an apartment – and you will find there are no grounds for withholding the security deposit.
- Claims he had incurred fines from the Department of Sanitation due to the improper disposal of my property on the curb.
Fact: New York City will dispose of any junk left out on the street so long as it is not 100 percent metal. Again he had nothing backing this up.
- Claims of severe apartment damage that was costly to fix.
I got quotes from contractors disproving the costs he cited. But Will failed to back up his case. When asked to produce receipts detailing these expenses, he came up empty handed, saying he lost the receipts during Hurricane Sandy.
To summarize, Will’s appeals to the judge’s sympathy were not acknowledged and his claims of hardship and disenfranchisement were quickly dismissed. I had photos of the apartment – which appear throughout this article and which I took originally to document my own design prowess – that clearly depicted the immaculate condition of the apartment.
On top of all that, he alleged that he had none of my contact information. The court didn’t buy it and I had the call records to show otherwise.
But the nail in the coffin for Will’s case was a caveat in New York’s Tenant Rights, which states that a landlord cannot change the locks of an apartment while a tenant is occupying it. Will changed the locks on my apartment during the two weeks I was in Florida, which constituted illegal eviction and was grounds for throwing out Will’s entire case.
About a month after my court hearing, I received the judgment in the mail, proclaiming I was owed my security deposit. A month after this, I finally received my security deposit, which had accrued quite nicely over those six years, thanks to the interest-bearing account my deposit was required to be held in by my lease.
On the day I received the security deposit, I also received a text from Will: “Hey. Did u get the chx ??” Obviously, he did have my number after all.
What I learned
Never make assumptions about negotiations with your landlord, no matter how friendly your relationship might be or how lax, absentee or completely derelict he is. Get everything in writing and document and save everything. Was there a leak in the bathroom? Take a picture of the damage and email your landlord so that you have proof you addressed it in a timely manner.
Also, avoid renting directly from unit owners and instead rent from management companies or professional landlords. Because Will was just a guy, not a professional landlord, we became friends, which blurred the lines between a professional and a social relationship. As layman landlord, Will didn’t also know the proper procedures for taking care of the property or the tenant. Renting from a professional landlord will give you more assurance that those protocols are followed. Also, it may be more effort to re-sign a formal lease or keep track of your monthly rent checks, but those formal processes are in place to hold everyone accountable. In the long run, Will and I went through a lot of turmoil because we let that all slide. It seems incredibly obvious, but going with the more informal and less hassled route has appeal, but don’t succumb to it like I did.
Lastly, be persistent! Small claims court generally rules in the tenant’s favor. If you really want that security deposit back, you’ll have to grit your teeth and bear a long and arduous road. But in the long run you are likely to receive it back.