Tenants’ Rights for Victims of Hurricane Sandy
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s wreckage last week, untold thousands of people are still displaced in New York, New Jersey and neighboring states. While homeowners confront destroyed houses and navigate insurance woes, renters have their own set of problems.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated that 10,000 people in the city have no hope of returning to their homes anytime soon, due to extensive damage from wind, fire and flood. Structural damage, soggy carpets, leaks, mold growth and more conspire to make once-prime apartments temporarily or permanently unlivable. While figuring out what legal options are available, renters who can’t go back to their homes should note off the bat that they don’t have to pay rent for the time that their apartment or house is uninhabitable, even if their landlord tries to tell them that they do.
Disputes between landlords and tenants are one of the more common legal problems to arise in the wake of a major storm, according to David H.K. Nguyen, director of Disaster Legal Services, a program administered by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division.
“Tenants who are disaster survivors may not understand lease terminology and also don’t have the lease in front of them,” Nguyen points out. “They may be getting the runaround from their landlord,” being told that they have to pay rent when they don’t.
|Other articles on Hurricane Sandy:|
DLS recruits attorneys in disaster regions to provide pro bono assistance to victims, helping to direct people to aid sources, assist with paperwork and even provide representation in some cases. “We talk to them and guide them through their rights,” Nguyen says. “If [the apartment] is uninhabitable, they don’t have to pay rent. They go out and find another place and it’s the landlord’s responsibility to fix it back up. And then, depending on what the contract says, they can go back.”
New York, New York
In New York City, tenants in “Zone A,” the areas hardest hit by flooding, again do not have to pay rent for the time they are unable to live in their apartments. If they had to vacate for just a few days, they should get a prorated credit for those days. In apartments that fall under the city’s rent regulations, tenants who have to leave for extended periods of time can maintain their lease by paying $1 a month.
Tenants who are living in a damaged building, or one without utilities, may be subject to rent reduction on a sliding scale until the dwelling is fully livable again. Depending on the extent of the damage and the wording of the lease, landlords may be able to cancel leases entirely in cases where it will take a long time to make repairs. Any disputes will be heard in the New York City Housing Court.
In New Jersey, tenants are protected under a warrant of habitability, which mandates that a landlord provide a livable space. The property owner has an ongoing requirement to keep the dwelling in shape and make sure that essentials like heat, hot water and indoor plumbing are all operational.
If the landlord refuses to make repairs, tenants can take it on themselves to “repair and deduct,” i.e. make the repairs themselves and deduct the costs from their rent, as long as they give notice to the landlord and the expenses are reasonable and documented. Tenants can also refuse to pay their rent while a necessary repair is outstanding and use the dwelling’s unsuitability as a defense if the landlord tries to evict. In extreme cases, if the landlord is unresponsive, tenants can vacate the property entirely and terminate the lease under a “constructive eviction.”
Tenants should also be aware that repairs to hurricane damage should not come out of renters’ security deposits.
For storm victims seeking legal assistance or guidance, the DLS Sandy hotline number in New York is 1-800-699-5636, and in Connecticut 1-866-864-4464.