Building Maintenance

How do you get things fixed when they are broken in your loft? Sometimes it’s enough to bother your landlord incessantly; sometimes witholding rent helps.  (There are conflicting opinions about whether putting rent in escrow or “rent strike” is a good idea, as it can be grounds for eviction.  Unfortunately you may have to ask a lawyer about that one.)

But what if you desperately need something fixed, and the landlord isn’t responding? Well, if you’ve applied for Loft Law coverage, you get tenant rights, including the right to bring your landlord to court.

Essential Services Law

The Essential Services Law gives loft tenants standing in housing court in the time between filing for Loft Law coverage and being registered as an Interim Multiple Dwelling, which may take years. Once your building is an IMD, the Loft Board has jurisdiction and will respond to maintenance complaints.

Housing court is one part of the NYC Civil Court system. (The other part is the Commercial Part.) The Housing Part (HP) hears certain limited cases involving residential tenants including rent disputes or “non-payment” cases, Housing Maintanence and Service complaints and “lockout” cases when a landlord illegally tries to keep tenants out of their apartments.  An HP Action asks the court to force landlords to make necessary repairs or to restore services to individual apartments and to building common areas and systems.

This is one of the few actions tenants can pursue without an attorney, and it is also fairly “fast”, as far as courts go. However, there’s no question that a lawyer with Loft Law experience will improve your chances for success.

The Housing Part (HP) works hand in hand with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). HPD is the City Agency that oversees residential housing conditions in the same way that the Department of Buildings (DOB) oversees general building conditions. If your space has violations, or needs enforcement of the housing maintenance code, HPD is the place to take your issues to court.

There are three classes of violation:

  • Class A — less serious problems, must be addressed in 90 days. Example: walls have not been painted for 5 years
  • Class B — more serious problems, must be addressed in 30 days. E.g. roaches/mice
  • Class C — severe violations, usually must be addressed in 48 hours. E.g. no heat, leaks, lead paint in a house with young children.

Before you approach HP, you should make sure you want to get the city involved. You must have applied for loft law coverage, and you have to consider that if your building is completely unsafe, you may get vacated. Many of us have already had visits from the Department of Buildings, so we know if our buildings are that unsafe.

Here are the steps for filing suit in the HP:

  1. Band together with a few of your neighbors and file your case as a group. This will strengthen your case and the court will take you much more seriously. This is especially important for complaints regarding common areas.  You don’t need to get all your neighbors on board, three or more will do.
  2. Before you approach HP, you must find out who you are suing.  Who owns your building? It may not be who is on the lease. Two resources that may help you find this out are the HPD database, and the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS).
  3. Make a list of everything that needs to be fixed, and be very specific.
  4. Call 311 to file your complaint. This step is not 100% necessary but this way the city will notify your landlord of the problem and the landlord will have no way of claiming not to know about the problem.
  5. Write the landlord a certified letter, again so that the landlord can’t claim not to have known about about the problem.
  6. To file your suit, go to housing court and file a simple form including an Inspection Report, which is where you will list all of the maintenance issues that you want HPD to come and inspect. Be very specific about the exact locations/dates of problems. The fee is $45. If you go in the morning, there are usually people from Legal Aid who can help you file.
    When the form is processed, you’ll receive two dates, the inspection date and the court date.
  7. Make sure you are home when the inspector visits! The inspectors are busy people: be sure you are polite and patiently show them the problems. If the problem is not visible when they visit, you can still prove the problem using photos or other evidence (such as temperature logs), but it is far better if the inspector sees the problems, because then you won’t need to prove it.
    Watch out that you haven’t created any violations yourself, such as installing double-cylinder locks or disabling smoke alarms. You could end up getting fined yourself.
  8. You must serve notice of the court date to all affected parties by certified mail.
  9. After you’ve had your day in court, the court will issue a consent decree, which is an agreement by the landlord to make the necessary repairs or improvements within a specified time period.
    If the landlord does not follow through, this is the point at which you should probably retain a lawyer. Bringing your case back to court can result in severe fines for the landlord, or even (in rare cases) jail. Of course, the preferred outcome is simply to get the problems fixed!

You are covered by the Essential Services Law from the moment you apply for Loft Law coverage and receive a docket number until the day your building is registered as an IMD. However, this law will only be in effect for three years from the day the Loft Board finishes all of its rules and starts the formal six-month window period for applications (now estimated for March 2012).

It will take some tenants bringing their cases to court, to prove the law and to educate the judges about it. What is clear is that if you have serious building maintenance issues and you have applied for Loft Law coverage, you should learn more about the Essential Services Law and find out if it can help you.

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