You just moved into a new apartment that is overextending your budget, but the location is great and the rent is the rent, right? No. You could be paying too much and even if you are, you could have some money coming to you. If you live in a building subject to rent stabilization — a building with six or more units built before Jan. 1, 1974 — it is against the law for the landlord to overcharge. Even if the landlord says that you are not stabilized, the landlord may have deregulated your apartment illegally. A landlord can deregulate an apartment only when there’s a vacancy and the rent surpasses $2,000.
Here’s what you can do to protect yourself against rent fraud.
• Obtain a “rent history” for your apartment from the Department of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), the state housing agency. Visit a DHCR borough office or call 718-739-6400. The landlord is entitled to some rent increases including the annual increase mandated by the Rent Guidelines Board, a 20 percent vacancy hike, any “major capital improvement” (if applicable) and 1/40 of the cost of remodeling any vacant apartment. Remodeling costs are where most fraud happens — the landlord claiming work that he or she did not do.
• If you suspect an overcharge after checking your apartment’s rent history, send the landlord a letter via certified mail, return receipt requested, stating that you believe you are being overcharged.
• You will need a copy of cashed checks from the bank and/or copies of money orders to establish the amount of rent that you pay. Just call your bank for the checks. This may cost a little, but it is essential. You will need every rent check from your tenancy. (If you pay in cash or money order, always ask for rent receipts.)
• Obtain a copy of your lease and subsequent lease renewals.
• You have only four years to file a complaint.
Armed with the evidence to make your rent overcharge claim, you have two choices. If you cannot afford an attorney, are ineligible for legal services and want to avoid litigation, you can file an overcharge complaint with the DHCR. Complaint forms are available on their website.
The second option is to withhold your rent and take the issue to housing court. If you choose housing court, you should hire an attorney or at least consult an attorney. It rarely happens but the downside is that if the landlord wins he or she can evict you, collect attorney fees and make you pay the back rent, but the upshot is that if your case is strong, you can get a good settlement.
Anyone who lives in a stabilized building and pays market rent should check on their rent history. If you prove the landlord willfully overcharged you, you’re entitled to triple damages—that could mean many months of free rent or cold cash.
Bennett Baumer works as an organizer for Housing Conservation Coordinators (hcc-nyc.org).