For nearly a month, I bathed by warming water in a small electric kettle, standing clumsily in the shower and pouring it — sparingly, because I had to save enough to wash out the shampoo — over my head. I survived on microwaveable meals and handfuls of granola. I stayed warm by bundling up day and night. Everyone in my 150-unit apartment complex did, because there was a major gas leak that needed repairing — which meant no hot water, no oven, no stove and no heat — and our landlord was taking their sweet time getting around to it.
Never will I take a warm shower for granted again.
In all seriousness, this was a massive problem for a lot of people: Hundreds, including myself, had no access to warm showers, warm water to wash our hands and clean our dishes, all in the middle of winter during COVID. We had no access to heat. We had virtually no way to cook, and were forced to spend extra money eating out, ordering in or buying microwaveable food — if we even had a microwave — during an economic crisis caused by COVID.
And what did our landlord do? They got around to it, more than three weeks later.
Unfortunately, this sort of situation is all too common. Tenants are at the mercy of their landlords, and landlords have a reputation for being both uncaring and unwilling to solve problems in a timely manner. For anyone who finds themselves in a similar position, I spoke with tenants’ rights lawyer Samuel Himmelstein about what you can do if your landlord is being lazy about making important fixes.
Before we dive into your options, keep in mind that tenants’ rights differ from state to state, and that Himmelstein is an expert specifically in NYC tenants’ rights. To that end, he says New York housing laws are both confusing and tough on tenants, despite having “among the most progressive pro-tenant laws in the country.” So you can already imagine how awful tenants have it beyond NYC and all around the U.S.
It’s also important to understand that landlords are rarely required to make minor and cosmetic repairs, like a leaky faucet or mildewed grout. It’s still worth checking your lease and state landlord-tenant laws, but the following advice is mainly for problems that make parts of your unit uninhabitable, like no gas, no water — stuff like that.
Now that you know what you’re up against (and hopefully not already cowering in fear), let’s look at your options, in escalating order of how severe the problem is.
Make Your Request in Writing
Rule number one is that you should always put repair requests in writing (that includes email), which creates a paper trail if you take your landlord to court. If you have multiple, documented attempts to get in touch with the landlord — and any other property managers — to solve the problem, that will be immensely helpful in any kind of legal dispute down the road.
311 is a non-emergency phone number that people can call in many cities to find information about services, make complaints and get in touch with government agencies, like those involved in housing. “If you file complaints with those government agencies, what you’ll end up doing is, inspectors will come out, they’ll place violations and that will give you good evidence in your case,” says Himmelstein. “If they see a condition that they consider to be an emergency, they’ll sometimes refer it to their emergency repair unit, and they’ll tell the landlord, ‘Unless you fix this within five days, we’re going to do the work, and then we’re going to bill you for our contractors, which aren’t going to be as cheap as yours.’”
The problem with this route is that it could end up being a roundabout, lengthier way to solve the situation if you end up needing to go to court anyway. And if they find a very serious emergency issue, like a potential fire hazard, Himmelstein says, “They might hit the apartment with a vacate order, which means the tenant has to leave.” Then you’re stuck without a home.
Contact a Lawyer
Sometimes simply contacting a lawyer is enough to solve the problem while keeping you and your landlord out of court. “If I got hired, the thing I would do is contact the landlord, and I’d usually write them a letter and say, ‘I’ve been retained because of these conditions in the apartment. We’re demanding that you immediately correct these things, and if you don’t, we’re going to take appropriate legal action,’” Himmelstein says. “The reason you do that is twofold: One is that sometimes the landlord gets freaked out and says, ‘Oh, they got a lawyer. I better watch out.’ And they actually do the work. The second reason you do it is because then you have written proof that you gave notice, and if you have to go to court, you can say to the judge, ‘Your honor, I didn’t run into court lightly. I tried to resolve this first. I told the landlord that I was representing the tenant, and tried to get them to fix and they wouldn’t do it. That’s why we need judicial intervention here.’”
Speaking of court, your next option is…
Take Your Landlord to Housing Court
If you’re dealing with an urgent issue that needs immediate attention, Himmelstein says housing court is “the only way to go.” He notes that it’s “operating on one-third of what it normally does” due to COVID, but still entertaining emergency applications. “In most of these cases, you’ll have a very quick court date,” he explains. “You’ll be in front of a judge within a week or 10 days, and the judge will most likely say to the landlord and their lawyer, ‘When are you going to restore these services? I want you to enter into some sort of agreement to do so.’ And the judge, if they won’t, might then order them to do so.”
Go on Rent Strike
This is both a complicated and nuclear approach. On the one hand, Himmelstein says, “Tenants can withhold their rent, and when the landlord sues for non-payment, interpose a defense” based on habitability laws in their state. However, not only is that a difficult option during COVID times, because the courts are so backed up that you may not end up seeing a judge for months, but in some states, withholding rent for any amount of time still gives landlords the right to evict you. So you definitely want to check your local laws before holding on to that rent check.
The other potential problem with withholding rent — and subsequently getting sued for non-payment — is that you could end up being blacklisted from future housing. “If a tenant is sued in housing court in New York for whatever reason, they go into these databases called tenant blacklists,” says Himmelstein. “Most landlords will view a tenant who withholds rent, even if they were legally correct, as being a troublemaker.” New York passed a law in 2019 trying to prevent landlords from denying blacklisted tenants, but Himmelstein says it’s near impossible to enforce, and you can imagine how this kind of thing could play out in other states, too.
And that’s about all your options. “As you can see, the answer isn’t straightforward or simple,” Himmelstein notes, which I’d say is putting it lightly.
So take your warm showers while you can, folks, because even if you call 311, contact a lawyer and take your landlord to court, they may not end up fixing the problem for a while.