Facade of NYC Rental Building

(Source: Felix.castor via Flickr Creative Commons)

As a tenant in New York City you are legally entitled to an apartment that meets basic health, safety and structural standards. If it does not and your landlord fails to take care of important maintenance (i.e., broken radiator, leak in the ceiling), then you have the right to either withhold your rent until the repairs are made, or to “repair and deduct” – meaning, you have the right to hire someone to fix the problem and then deduct the cost from your next rent payment.

So what are basic health, safety, and structural standards? Landlords are required to maintain electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, and ventilating systems, as well as appliances they installed (like a fridge or stove), in good and safe working order. If you can classify your living space as “uninhabitable,” then you have grounds to withhold rent – but only if the defects were caused by something completely outside of your control. If your negligence somehow caused the problem, you could be sued by your landlord for failure to pay rent.

Old radiator

Old radiator. (Source: Conal Gallagher via Flickr Creative Commons).

If you find yourself in an unlivable situation, take the following steps:

  1. Contact your super or landlord about the necessary repairs. Hopefully they’ll scoot right over and take care of everything quickly, case closed.
  2. If you don’t hear back from them, write a letter to your landlord requesting the repair be made by a specific date. Send the letter certified mail and keep a copy for your files.
  3. If you still don’t hear back from anyone, consult NYC’s tenants’ rights or call 311 for a housing inspection. The Housing Preservation and Development department can fine landlords or force them to make repairs. This option can sometimes take a lot of time.
  4. If you don’t have that kind of time, make the repair yourself, keep all receipts, and withhold the cost from your next rent payment. This may result in legal action on the part of your landlord, so it’s always a good idea to consult a lawyer beforehand and keep records of all correspondence.

Bottom line: NEVER withhold rent without making sure that you didn’t cause the problem. Always double check (and to be safe, have a lawyer triple check), that the repair is necessary under New York City’s housing maintenance code.