What Every Tenant Should Know

Lease

A lease is a written agreement between a landlord and a tenant that contains the terms and conditions of the rental. A lease gives you and your landlord rights and responsibilities. The important thing to remember is that you can have a legal contract with your landlord, even if it’s not in writing. Special note: In Suffolk County, a landlord must offer a written lease of at least a year in buildings with 3 or more apartments.

Discrimination

A landlord cannot refuse to rent to you because of your race, age, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, or because you have children. Often, it’s hard to know when you’ve been discriminated against and it can be difficult to prove. If you think a landlord has discriminated against you, you can complain to Long Island Housing Services at (631) 567-5111. You can also file a fair housing complaint with HUD at (800) 669-9777.

Before You Rent

You can avoid trouble later on by being careful when you first rent a house or apartment.

The first thing you’ll want to know, of course, is how much the rent is. Does the rent include heat and electricity? If you will be paying your own heat and electricity, check with LIPA to obtain copies of old utility bills for that house or apartment. The old bills will give you a history of past utility costs and a good idea of how much you will be paying for utilities each month. If the utility meter is shared with others in the building, the law requires the landlord to have the meter in his name.

Security Deposit

Before you agree to hand over rent or a security deposit on a new place to live, inspect the apartment or house carefully. Take a friend with you and write down anything that needs to be fixed. If you can, take pictures of each room.

Talk to your future landlord and find out when he will fix any problems. It’s a good idea to get this in writing. Also, check with the landlord about things like trash cans, stove and refrigerator, and storm doors.

You might want to talk to other tenants in the building to find out about any problems they may have had with the landlord or the building.

Be sure to get your landlord’s address and phone number. Ask him what to do in case of an emergency.

Most landlords require tenants to give a security deposit. The money deposit is usually equal to one or two months rent. If you qualify, the Department of Social Services can assist you with your security deposit. Get a receipt for your security deposit and save it. The deposit is intended to cover damages beyond normal wear and tear. You should get all of your security deposit back “within a reasonable time” after you move if you haven’t damaged the apartment and are up-to-date with your rent.

The deposit you give your landlord is still your money and can’t be spent by the landlord. The landlord has to tell you how much was deposited and the name and address of the bank he or she put the money into.

When you move out, take pictures of the premises. If the landlord refuses to return your security deposit and you feel that you are entitled to it, you can take the landlord to small claims court if the amount is less than $5,000. (Call the NY Public Interest Research Group NYPIRG for information on Small Claims at 631 632-6457).

Written Lease

A written lease is just a written agreement signed by both you and your landlord. Your landlord may ask you to sign a written lease before moving in. The lease can’t be changed while it’s in effect unless both you and your landlord agree.

Always read a written lease very carefully BEFORE you sign it! Ask questions if you don’t understand something in the lease. The law says that the lease must be written in clear, plain English. Also, you are entitled to receive a signed copy of the lease. Whether your lease is written or verbal, it must be consistent with New York State law. If a part of your lease violates the law, that part of the lease is invalid and cannot be enforced. But, that does not mean the entire agreement is invalid. Keep a copy of your lease in a safe place.

Some things the lease should include…

-the address of the place you are renting

-the landlord’s name and address

-the amount of rent and when it’s due

-the amount of time that you’ll be renting (for example, one year)

-both the landlord’s and tenant’s responsibilities (such as, what utilities are included in the rent)

The main advantage of a written lease is that your landlord cannot make you move or raise the rent until the lease ends (as long as you pay your rent and follow the rules in the lease, of course). Most written leases are good for a year, but they can be longer or shorter. The lease gives the you the right to “quiet enjoyment” of the property until the lease ends.

One bad part about a written lease is that if you want to move out before the lease ends you may have to find a new tenant to take your place. If you don’t find a new tenant for the rest of the lease term, you might be charged with the remaining rent even after you move! Another possible downside of a written lease is if it includes the promise to pay attorney’s fees in case of an eviction (this is the only way a landlord can charge you attorney’s fees).

Month-to-Month Tenancy

If you do not have a written lease, how long your contract lasts depends on how often you pay your rent. Most people pay their rent once a month, which is called a month-to-month tenancy. (Also, tenants who stay past the end of a lease are treated as month-to-month tenants if the landlord accepts their rent).  With a month-to month tenancy, you or the landlord can give either verbal or written notice when you want to change the agreement.

A landlord can propose to raise the rent of a month-to-month tenant without the tenant’s consent. However, if you do not agree to pay the new amount, the landlord cannot evict you for nonpayment, but can end your tenancy by giving you appropriate notice and then bringing a holdover proceeding.  (It may be worth it to negotiate with the landlord on an increase in rent that you can afford.)

A tenant with a written lease does not have as much protection because the landlord can end your tenancy as long as he gives you proper notice. Notice to terminate the tenancy before bringing a holdover proceeding must include a full month=s rent period and clearly state the date that the tenancy ends. (Arguably if you pay weekly, once you’ve been in the apartment one month, the landlord must give a week’s notice to terminate the tenancy.) The notice must be given before the beginning of the next term. So if your rent is due on October 1, a proper notice to terminate must be given to you BEFORE October 1, effective October 31. The landlord does not have to explain why he or she wants the apartment back.  You must also give the landlord notice in the same way before you move out.

Such notice does not automatically let the landlord evict you. If you don=t move out on the day that the tenancy ends, the landlord must bring you to court.  If you receive court papers for an eviction, contact an attorney immediately to learn what your rights are.

The important thing to remember is that you have a legal contract with your landlord, even if it=s not in writing. Both you and your landlord have to live up to that contract.

Record Keeping

Keep copies of ALL paperwork relating to your tenancy and keep them in a safe place. This should include:

  • a copy of the lease (if you have a written one)
  • a receipt or cancelled check for your security payment
  • rent receipts
  • receipts for any repairs that you have made to the rental property
  • copies of all correspondence with the landlord.
  • any photographs you’ve taken of the premises

If there is damage to the apartment before you move in, remember to take pictures of it or make a detailed list of the damage and ask the landlord to sign it. This is important, in case you have a problem getting your security deposit back.

If you pay your rent with a check or money order, the cancelled check or money order stub can be saved as your receipt. It’s a good idea to write on the check or money order the period that the payment covers. If you don’t pay by check or money order, New York State law requires that your landlord give you a receipt. Even if you pay by money order, you are entitled to a receipt. If you pay by check, you can get a receipt if you ask for one. Be sure to get and save rent receipts from your landlord for all payments you have made. New York State law requires that the rent receipts include: the date you paid the rent, the amount that you paid, the amount of time that the money is paying for, the place being rented (i.e. the address and whether it’s a house, apartment, etc.) and the signature and title (i.e. landlord, building manager, etc. ) of the person who received the rent.

Unwritten Responsibilities

New York State law says that some responsibilities are part of your agreement with your landlord even if they are not spelled out. In other words, these things are included in your agreement whether your landlord tells you about them or not.

It’s important to know what these responsibilities are, and to take steps to protect them:

  • You are responsible for paying the rent on time. The best way to pay your rent is with a check or money order so that you have a record of your payment. Try not to pay your rent with cash. Always get a signed receipt for your rent. Save all your rent receipts.
  • You must let your landlord know when a repair is needed. You must also allow the landlord to come in to make the needed repair.
  • You are responsible for any damage to the apartment that you cause aside from normal wear and tear. Your landlord can keep all or part of your security deposit to pay for any damages that you cause.
  • You must let the landlord have access to the apartment to make repairs and collect the rent.
  • Other tenants in your building have rights too, and you must respect them. You should not disturb them by being too noisy or cluttering up common areas such as halls.

Your landlord also has responsibilities when he rents you a place to live. Whether your lease says so or not, your landlord must make sure that your rental space is safe and livable:

  • Heat must be supplied to your apartment from October 1st through May 31st the following year, any time the outside temperature drops below 55 F. The required minimum temperature is 65 F between 10PM and 6 AM (overnight) and 68 F between 6AM and 10PM (during the day).
  • The landlord’s right to enter the premises requires your permission. Without your permission the landlord is trespassing unless there is an emergency he needs to address inside, such as a fire, gas leak or flood.
  • The landlord is responsible for putting a smoke detector in any area where someone sleeps.

If you live in an apartment building with three or more apartments your landlord has special responsibilities in making your apartment a safe and comfortable place for you to live:

  • If there is an elevator, your landlord must put a mirror inside so you can see if anyone is already in it.
  • In Suffolk County, the landlord must offer a lease in a buildings with 3 or more apartments.
  • In most buildings, unless there is a door person, all doors to enter the building must close and lock automatically.

Default on Rent Payments

It’s your responsibility to pay your rent on time. Your landlord can evict you for not paying your rent. If you are short of money and can’t pay your rent there’s a couple of things that you can try.

First, talk to your landlord. Let him know when you will have the rent money. Try to work out an agreement with your landlord and get it in writing. The landlord doesn’t have to use the security that you pay to cover one month’s rent. This security is to protect the landlord in case there is damage to the apartment or common areas. So, if the landlord agrees to let you use the security to cover a month’s rent, make sure this agreement is in writing and signed by the landlord.

If you can’t pay the rent, you may qualify for emergency help from the Department of Social Services (DSS). You must prove to the agency that you will be able to pay the ongoing rent after DSS helps with the back rent. If you are denied help from DSS, save the papers that say so and request a fair hearing (516 739-4868).

You may be able to get help for one month’s rent from other agencies or even agencies that get federal money (called FEMA) that is put aside to help people in your situation. Call Law Services for advice and information.

Repair and Deduct

It is your right as a tenant to have a livable, safe and sanitary apartment. If you need repairs tell your landlord and ask when the repairs will be done (if it’s an emergency, notify your landlord immediately!). If the landlord doesn’t keep his word or doesn’t take care of the repairs quickly, send the landlord a letter, asking him to make the repairs. It is a good idea to mail this request A return receipt requested and, of course, keep a copy of the request for your records. If your landlord still refuses to fix the problem, you must decide if it is serious enough to fight about. If it is, you should try and talk to a lawyer before you take any of the next steps. Otherwise, you may pay to repair something and not be entitled to have the money returned.

One action you can take is to make the repair yourself and take the amount you spend out of the next month’s rent. This is called repair and deduct. It is a good idea to get written estimates before making repairs and to write the landlord that you plan to make the repairs if he doesn’t.

When your landlord sees that you spent part of your rent on repairs, he may try to evict you. The judge will decide in court whether it was okay for you to repair and deduct.

In emergencies, you may make necessary repairs and deduct the repair costs from the rent. For example, if your landlord has been notified that your door lock is broken and doesn’t repair it, you may hire a locksmith and deduct the cost from the rent. It is very important to save all receipts for the repair.

Another way to get your landlord to make repairs is not to pay the rent until he fixes the problem. This is called rent withholding.

Rent withholding is a serious step to take. You should only withhold the rent if there are bad health or safety problems in your home. Talk to a lawyer before you withhold your rent. Your landlord may try to evict you for not paying your rent if you withhold rent.

Before you withhold rent, or repair and deduct, make sure that you have written your landlord about the problem and given him a chance to fix it. Contact the Town’s Building Inspector (also called a Code Enforcement Inspector), the Fire Marshall or the County’s Department of Health (for things like no heat, cesspool backup, and lead paint issues) to look at the problem.

Remember, your landlord may try to evict you if you withhold your rent. You must be prepared to go to court and prove that your home has serious problems and your landlord won’t fix them. You must take the right steps to protect yourself. Follow these steps carefully:

  1. Talk to a lawyer to see if the problem is serious enough to withhold rent. Find out if you have done everything you need to, such as writing letters to the landlord telling him about the problem.
  2. Write a letter to the landlord saying that you are going to withhold the rent and why. Keep a copy of the letter.
  3. Do not spend the rent money. A lawyer (if you have one) can put the money in a special bank account called an escrow account. If you do not have a lawyer, get a money order or bank check for the amount of the rent. Send a copy of it to the landlord to show that you have the rent, but are not going to give it to him until the repairs are made. But, DO NOT SPEND THE RENT MONEY. Take photographs of the problems that can be photographed.
  4. Your landlord may make the repairs if you withhold the rent. Or he may take you to court to try to evict you for not paying the rent.
  5. If your landlord takes you to court be ready to show the judge that:
    -There is a serious health or safety problem in your home
    -You let the landlord know about it, but he did not make the repairs.
    -You have the rent money
  6. Bring to court copies of the letters to your landlord, inspector’s reports, pictures, witnesses to prove your side of the story and the rent money.

The judge will decide if the problem was serious enough to withhold the rent. The judge may say that you do not owe all the rent money because your home had serious problems.

Illegal Evictions

Your landlord must follow certain steps if he wants you to move. He cannot just throw you out anytime he wants. The steps your landlord has to take if he wants you to move depends on two things: (1)whether or not you have a written lease and (2) whether or not you have paid your rent. But, you can’t be evicted unless the landlord takes you to court and wins. A letter from a landlord or landlord’s attorney is NOT enough to evict you.

Some ways of making you move are never legal. It is illegal for your landlord to lock you out, shut off your heat/water, take the doors off your apartment or remove your possessions without a court order. Call the police and your local Law Services office as soon as you can if any of these things happen. If the police say they can’t do anything, mention the Suffolk County Police directive Order #88-19. Call Law Services for a copy. Only the sheriff can move your things out, if he has a court order and has served you with a 72-hr notice.

If your landlord turns off your utilities, you can also call the Suffolk County Department of Health Services at 854-0400 to ask for them to step in.

If your landlord evicts you illegally, you can sue for three times the damages you suffer. This can be done in Small Claims Court if the amount is less than $5,000 and you are not looking to move back in. (Call NYPIRG for more information see p. 5). Even though you may be in the middle of a crisis situation, it is very important to keep proof of your damages; such as, pictures of damaged property, receipts for additional expenses incurred, witnesses, police or health department reports, etc.

If you’ve been illegally evicted and you need help relocating, you should call DSS to arrange for emergency housing and storage. Sometimes, you won’t be able to find any other housing available and want to move back into the home you were just in. If you want to move back in, it is important to contact us at Nassau Suffolk Law Services to see if we can help.

Retaliatory Eviction

Landlords cannot harass tenants who exercise their rights. Sometimes, landlords will retaliate against you by trying to evict you because you have complained to authorities about conditions in your home or because you joined a tenants association. This is called retaliatory eviction and it’s against the law. Retaliatory eviction can be hard to prove. Be sure to get legal help if you think your landlord is evicting you because you’ve complained to authorities or joined a tenants’ association. Be sure to keep a copy of the report from the Code Enforcement Agency where you filed your complaint. Finally, you can not defend yourself in court by claiming retaliatory eviction if the landlord is taking you to court for not paying your rent.

When the Landlord Takes You to Court

Your landlord has to let you know he is taking you to court by sending you legal papers. The legal papers you will get are called a Notice of Petition and a Petition. Your name and the landlord’s name will be at the top of the page in a box.

The Notice of Petition will tell you what court to go to and when to go. The Petition will say why your landlord is telling the judge to make you move. It is important to talk to a lawyer when you get these legal papers.

If You Can Not Get a Lawyer

A lawyer will be very helpful in court. Call Law Services as soon as you received court papers and we will try to help if you’re eligible and we have an available attorney.

But you may not be able to get a lawyer to represent you. Go to court on the day you are supposed to, even if you don’t have a lawyer. Never ignore court papers. If you do, the judge will likely decide against you and grant the landlord a court order to evict you.

Get to court on time and dress neatly. Ask the Court Clerk any questions you have about what to do. When it’s your turn, tell your side of the story clearly and calmly. Take your time and think before you speak.

Be prepared. Be ready to tell the judge why you shouldn’t have to move. Bring cancelled checks or rent receipts to show that you paid the rent. Bring witnesses to prove that you didn’t break a rule in your lease. Bring pictures that show any serious problems with the premises. If your apartment had serious problems, you may be able to get the judge to decide that you should have money taken off the rent. Bring copies of any letters you may have written to the landlord asking him to make repairs.

Even if you agree that you didn’t pay the rent or that what the landlord says is right, you should still go to court. You can seek an adjournment (a delay in the proceeding) and if it’s the first time on, it will very likely be granted. Or, tell the judge how long you will need to move and ask for more time (if you need it). Judges will often give you extra time to move, especially if you have kids.

At the end of the court case, the judge will tell you when and if you have to move and how much rent you owe.

If you do not move by the day the judge says, the landlord will ask the judge to sign a paper called a Warrant of Eviction. The landlord then gives the warrant to the Sheriff. The Sheriff will eventually try to serve you a 72-hour notice and warrant of eviction personally, but if you are not home, the sheriff will leave it with another responsible person who lives in your household, OR will leave it on your door, window, or in your mailbox and mail it as well. The sheriff will return at some point after the end of the third day to remove you and your belongings from the premises. Keep in mind that the day you were served doesn’t count toward the three days, and neither do weekend days.

If you have not been able to find other housing by the time you receive the 72-hour notice, you may be eligible for emergency housing and storage assistance from DSS.

This entire legal process will take several weeks before the sheriff is actually knocking at the door. This doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t immediately start searching for other housing once an eviction seems likely.

Tenants’ Associations

If there are several apartments in your building, sometimes the best way to solve problems is to form a tenant association. There is strength in numbers.Often, landlords will listen more to a group of people than to just one person. It also give neighbors a chance to get to know one another! A tenant’s association meets regularly to solve problems and improve conditions in their building.

Tenants’ associations are easy to start. Just get your neighbors to get together for a meeting and decide what problems you want to work on. Then, prioritize the problems and get started!

Helpful Phone Numbers:

Nassau-Suffolk Law Services

Islandia: (631) 232-2400

Riverhead: (631) 369-1112

HUD (800) 669-9777

Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) (800) 490-0015

Long Island Housing Services (631) 467-5111

NYS Division of Human Rights (for Discrimination Complaints) (516) 538–1360

NYPIRG (Small Claims assistance) (631) 632– 6457

Suffolk County Dept. of Health Services (Heat/General Sanitation Complaints)

Eastern Suffolk (631) 852-2069

Western Suffolk (631) 853-6975

Suffolk County Office of Consumer Affairs

Hauppauge (631) 853-4600

Riverhead (631) 852-2053

Suffolk County Department of Social Services

After Hours Emergency Hotline (631) 854-9100

Nassau Dept of Health- Heat Complaints (516) 227-9715