A Landlord’s Legal Responsibilities

By | 2017-08-15T12:50:57+00:00 January 21st, 2015|Legal News|

If you live in New York City, you’re probably renting your apartment or home from someone else.

According to the US Census Bureau, America’s homeownership rate stood at 64.4% near the end of 2014. In other words, only 35.6% of the nation’s population rents housing, rather than owns it. New York City is almost the exact opposite. In 2013, only 32.2% of the City’s 8.406 million residents owned their own homes. That leaves 5.7 million people renting.

Judge in court with code

3 Things Your Landlord Has To Do

But as we all know, with rental housing comes landlords. You’ve heard horror stories of terrible landlords. If you haven’t, check this out. But where does “terrible” slip into “illegal”?

Here’s a list of a landlord’s legal responsibilities in New York State. If your landlord breaks one, you may have grounds for a lawsuit.

1. Provide A “Habitable” Residence

As a tenant in New York, you have the right to a safe, livable home.

In legal terms, landlords are held to an “implied warranty of habitability” and its set out in Chapter 50, Article 7, Section 235-b of New York State Code.

By accepting your rent, your landlord has agreed to provide you with a livable environment, whether or not this agreement was explicit.

So what does New York consider “livable”?

  • Basic necessities, like floors that don’t give way under you and a roof that actually keeps out the weather, are all included in this right. “Four walls and a roof,” they all have to be safe and work the way they should.
  • Common rooms and hallways must be safe and clean. No clutter, nothing you could trip over, and equipped with working lights.
  • Utilities, like electricity and water, need to work correctly, without dangers.
  • Protected from criminal intrusion. The locks on your doors need to work, as should any fencing surrounding the property.

The law states that properties leased or rented

“and all areas used in connection therewith in common with other tenants or residents are fit for human habitation and for the uses reasonably intended by the parties and that the occupants of such premises shall not be subjected to any conditions which would be dangerous, hazardous or detrimental to their life, health or safety.”

Setting aside the legalese, two things become clear after reading the actual statute.

  1. “warranty of habitability” applies primarily to common areas. Landlords don’t have to clean your room for you.
  2. the premium is placed on safety. Your apartment building doesn’t have to be nice; it just can’t threaten your health.

Note that New York’s warranty of habitability does not apply to condominiums.

2. Repair Problems

Landlords aren’t legally required to fix every little thing. If there’s a crack in a plaster wall, but it’s not a detriment to your “life, health or safety,” your landlord probably doesn’t have to repair it.

But big things, like a broken heater (unheated homes are considered “unlivable”) or a missing floorboard, have to be fixed. Unsafe fire escapes, broken stair railings, and malfunctioning elevators are all covered, too.

This requirement includes infestations. If you have rats or roaches, your landlord has to take care of it. As Section 235-b says, “the owner shall keep all and every part of a multiple dwelling, the lot on which it is situated, and the roofs, yards, courts, passages, areas or alleys appurtenant thereto, clean and free from vermin, dirt, filth, garbage or other thing or matter dangerous to life or health.”

But there’s a big distinction we should make here. If you caused a problem, it will never be considered a breach of the warranty of habitability. In that case, it’s your duty to make the repairs.

3. Maintain A Nontoxic Home

In many homes built before the late 70s, lead paint and asbestos were commonly used to cover and insulate walls. In higher concentrations, both are extremely dangerous.

Federal law only requires landlords to remove these hazards when they exist above a dangerous limit. But if any asbestos or lead paint exist on the property, your landlord must warn you of its presence at the least.

Does My Landlord Need To Remove Lead Paint?

If there’s lead paint in your apartment, US Code Title Ten requires landlords to provide new tenants with a disclosure agreement and a little booklet from the EPA.

New York City has its own regulations concerning lead, passed in 2004 as Local Law 1. The law presumes that lead paint exists in:

  • buildings built before 1960
  • buildings with three or more apartments
  • apartments where children under 6 live

Lead poisoning is particularly dangerous to children; it can cause severe developmental disorders. But on the wall, lead paint isn’t all that threatening. It’s when the paint crumbles or peels, filling the air with lead dust, that it becomes truly harmful.

Just like the federal law, New York’s lead paint regulations do not require landlords to remove lead paint, unless it’s become an imminent health hazard.

If you have lead paint in your apartment, and notice it peeling, report the problem to your landlord. Your landlord must fix the problem. If they don’t, you can call 311 and the City will send out an inspector to test the paint for lead. Your landlord may receive a violation for failing to address matter.

You cannot sue your landlord for allowing lead paint to exist in your apartment until you have suffered a demonstrable injury as a result.

Do Landlords Have To Remove Asbestos?

No.

Like lead paint, asbestos insulation is only considered a danger to health and safety when it becomes airborne. In most cases, asbestos is actually best left alone, rather than removed. The removal process can release a dangerous amount of asbestos fibers into the air.

But federal law requires the owners of buildings built before 1981 to post warnings about asbestos wherever it is. Usually, the regulations will at least force landlords to test for asbestos. If asbestos is found, they have to notify tenants.

When asbestos is found in a dangerous condition, if it presents an immediate threat to health, landlords must remove it. As a tenant, you are not liable for any costs related to the removal.

You can find more information on mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer often caused by asbestos poisoning, here.

Enforcing Your Tenant Rights In New York City

If you’ve found a problem that you think is your landlord’s responsibility, ask them to fix it. You have a right to a property that meets “basic structural, health and safety standards.”

But you need to provide your landlord with actual (“constructive”) notice before the law steps in. You don’t have to put anything in writing, but you do have to tell them.

Once you’ve reported the problem, wait for your landlord to fix it. This becomes a legal issue if your landlord fails to address issues that threaten your health or safety.

In that case, you may have two options, generally protected as rights under New York State law:

  1. Withhold rent entirely until the problem of habitability is addressed
  2. Have the problem repaired yourself and then deduct the cost from your rent.

Note that “rent and deduct,” that second option, has only been upheld in court under emergency conditions. It was found a legal form of recourse in a case that involved a broken door lock.

Before you exercise either of those rights, make sure that the condition you want fixed truly breaches the warranty of habitability. There’s a good list of situations that satisfy the requirement on the New York State Unified Court System’s website.

Can My Landlord “Punish” Me?

No.

In New York State, it is illegal for your landlord to “retaliate” after you report a problem, complain to a governmental agency or exercise any other legal rights.

They cannot terminate your tenancy, evict you, increase your rent or stop you from receiving necessary services.

About the Author:

Laurence P. Banville is the managing partner of Banville Law. As an experienced personal injury attorney, Mr. Banville helps clients recover compensation from those responsible for his clients' injuries. Our firm is located in New York City, serving clients from the five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island.

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