April 18, 2013

BARELY LEGAL: Defending Your Rights As a Tenant

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I was out of state during winter break when I learned from a housemate that our apartment had been burglarized. Our front door had been pried open with what we assumed must have been a crow bar; the TV from my room stood on the floor by the front door, as if someone had left in a hurry; and items had been removed from our bedrooms and arranged in piles in the living room, in a manner reminiscent of the ways children arrange their candy after a night of trick-or-treating so they can trade it with their friends.

Once the initial shock of the burglary subsided, I became angry. However, my anger was not directed at the burglars as much as it was directed toward my landlord (I will not mention my landlord by name here, but here is a clue: the same landlords who take care of the property where the porch collapsed under Cornell students last fall), who, I believe, failed to take minimal precautions to prevent the theft from occurring in the first place.

In October, my housemates and I informed our landlord that our mail and packages were being stolen. One housemate lost a pair of running shoes, another lost birthday cards containing cash and checks and I lost a hilarious beer hat. When one of my housemates informed our landlord about the thefts, my landlord merely asked him whether he had filed a police report. Only when our mail continued to go missing did our landlord send out an email (at my request) to the tenants in the building stating that mail and packages had been going missing, that the police had been alerted and that packages could now be sent to their office.

However, because my landlord did not install a lock on the front door of our building, which leads directly to the mailboxes, or on the mailboxes themselves, our mail continued to go missing. One would assume that installing a lock on a front door and several mailboxes would not be too much to ask of a landlord, considering the fact that landlords have a legal obligation to take minimal precautions to ensure that their tenants have a safe place to live. Yet, although my landlord knew that someone had been habitually coming onto the property and stealing his or her tenants’ mail, he or she failed to do either of these things before the break-in at my apartment.

Soon after the break in, I exchanged emails with my former property professor, who advised me to look up the New York Tenants’ Rights Guide.

Prior to discovering the guide, I thought that I was powerless to hold my landlord accountable for failing to take minimal steps to secure my building. The guide, however, changed everything — It not only helped me identify my rights under New York State law, but also gave me the confidence to demand them.

The best part about the guide is that you don’t need to be a law student or a lawyer to understand it.  So, without further adieu, here is how YOU, the lowly tenant, can take steps to learn about and protect your rights:

1. Download the PDF version of the guide from the website, look through it to identify any provisions your landlord has breached and highlight those in the PDF.

2. After you’ve identified and highlighted the relevant provisions in the guide, draft a respectful yet firm email to your landlord regarding the provisions you identified in the guide and copy and paste the relevant portions of the guide directly into the body of the email.

3. Attach the PDF version of the guide, with the relevant sections highlighted, to the email and send.

4. That’s it! Now sit back and wait for your landlord to respond.

5. If your landlord never responds to you or refuses to address the issues addressed in your email, think about contacting your attorney or reporting your landlord to one of the agencies listed in the back of the guide (thankfully, I never had to do this).

Less than a week after I followed the steps listed above, my landlord responded to my requests and installed: a locked mail­box for our apartment; a lock on the front door of the building; a lock on our laundry room door; and a peephole for our apartment door (conveniently installed right at my eye level, approximately five feet above the ground).

Obviously, it is always preferable to completely avoid dealing with an unresponsive landlord.  However, if you ever find yourself stuck with a landlord who refuses to respect your rights as a tenant, remember that you can protect yourself by using the guide (however, please avoid doing anything drastic, like suing your landlord or withholding rent, without first consulting a lawyer).  With the year almost over and the balance in my bank account dwindling, I look forward to recovering my security deposit (less any “lawful deductions” of course). My hope is that, after reading this article and the Tenants’ Rights Guide, you too will be able to assert your rights as a tenant and look forward to getting back your security deposit.

Cristina M. Quiñones-Betancourt is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. She can be reached at cmq5@cornell.edu. Barely Legal appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

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