How to deal with bed bugs, noisy neighbors and other NYC apartment problems

Ten common apartment problems fixed—because you moved here to follow your dreams, not breathe in the mold behind the wallpaper
By Leah Faye Cooper |
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Mold. Crazy roommates. Bed bugs. Neighbors who may or may not be harboring a fugitive. The list of gripes with NYC apartments is endless. Throw in complicated, vague housing laws and a lack of cooperation from your real estate agent, and it can be nearly impossible to understand your rights as a tenant (or know whom to turn to when you keep getting stuck in the elevator). To help you navigate the madhouse of renting in this city, we enlisted a few experts to chime in on how to deal with rental nightmares.

1. Bed bugs
Few things are worse than discovering you have bed bugs. It’s every New Yorker’s nightmare, and likely something you never had to worry about before moving here. But the good news, financially at least, is that it’s not your problem. “It’s your landlord’s responsibility to rid the apartment of bed bugs under the Warranty of Habitability and the NYC Housing and Maintenance Code,” says attorney Sam Himmelstein, partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph. If you complain and your landlord isn’t responsive, you can file a complaint online at nyc.gov, or call 311. “The Department of Housing Preservation and Development will come to your house with a bed bug-sniffing dog (yes, an adorable beagle!) and conduct an inspection,” says Mariela Quintana, real estate editor of StreetEasy.com. “If bed bugs are found, HDP will issue a ticket to your landlord, who then has 30 days to address the problem.”

2. Elevator nightmares
Getting stuck in the elevator falls right behind bed bugs on the NYC nightmare list. If it happens to you, persistence is essential (once you break free.) “Contact the landlord and let them know about the problem,” Himmelstein says. “If that doesn’t work, call 311 and ask for an inspection by the Department of Buildings.” Your landlord won’t be forced to replace or repair the elevator without significant evidence that it isn’t safe, so consider asking neighbors who’ve gotten stuck to file complaints, too. “Applying pressure on the landlord is one way to motivate them to make sure the elevator works,” adds Adam Leitman Bailey, attorney and owner of Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. In the event that the Department of Buildings finds a problem, your landlord must correct it or face a fine.    

3. Broken fixtures
Overall your apartment is great; it’s affordable (by NYC standards) and in the perfect location. Your sink and mirror, however, look like they date back to the Mayflower. Unfortunately, if they’re just ugly, you may be stuck with them. “While your landlord is responsible for maintaining the habitability of your apartment, they’re not required to update downtrodden fixtures and features.” Quintana says. In order to have a case for mandatory replacement, “they have to be nonfunctional, broken or dangerous,” Himmelstein adds. With permission, you can replace appliances yourself, and in some cases negotiate with your landlord to have them cover part of the cost, especially if you intend to leave them behind when you move.

4. Noisy neighbors
It sounds like a giant is walking on top of your bedroom every time your upstairs neighbor moves, but they’re not jump roping or throwing rowdy parties—they’re simply living. Before you chalk this up to just another bothersome thing New Yorkers have to deal with, consider this: Your neighbor may have no rugs on their floors, making any movement much louder. “While there’s no city regulation around carpeting requirements, there could be a clause in [your] lease stating that a certain percentage of unit floors must be covered with a rug or carpet to help mitigate sound,” Quintana says. So check the lease! Bailey suggests writing a letter to your landlord too, explaining your issue with your neighbor, and asking for strict enforcement of any lease requirements regarding carpeting.        

5. Eviction threats
You wouldn’t dream of skipping out on your rent, but unfortunately, your landlord isn’t quite as ethical. They’ve dodged the mortgage, forcing your eviction. Now what? “New York law protects all tenants from having to move until their lease is over, and the foreclosure laws specifically protect tenants in these actions,” Bailey says. “Write and call the person trying to evict you and let them know you have the legal right to stay until the end of your lease.” Don’t blow your rent money though, warns Himmelstein. “Until a receiver is appointed or the building is sold in a foreclosure sale—which occurs at the very end of the foreclosure case,” he says, “you’re still liable for the rent.” 

6. Problem smokers
For a nonsmoker, cigarette smoke can be a headache—literally. Dealing with it at a Bushwick house party is inevitable, but you shouldn’t have to live with it daily just because your neighbor smokes. If you feel constantly trapped in a cloud of secondhand smoke in your own bedroom, you may have to take the issue to your landlord, and possibly the law. “The first thing you should do is to check your rental contract,” Quintana says. “If there are provisions that prohibit smoking, contact your landlord and file a complaint to have it stopped.” Know, however, that even if smoking isn’t banned in your building, you may still have a case. “If you live in a coop or rental building, your neighbor is violating your warranty of habitability,” Bailey says. “The coop board or landlord is required to enforce the law and take action against your neighbor, and/or close all holes in the apartment so the smoke cannot escape.” If your landlord doesn’t take action, you can take them and your neighbor to housing court.

7. Laundry hogs
Your chances of finding the laundry room empty are slim, but hey, that’s life in the city. Seeing the same neighbor there hogging all the machines week after week, however, is extremely frustrating, especially when they’re not doing their own laundry, but instead using your building to run a wash-and-fold service. If you see this happening, “Ask the landlord (or coop or condo board) to pass a rule banning the laundry room for commercial purposes, or limiting the amount of time a person can use it,” says Bailey. “In order to make your request more persuasive, knock on doors, and speak to other people that use the laundry room; they’ll probably have the same interest in having a rule implemented.”  Though most New York leases already ban residents from using building amenities for commercial purposes, Bailey says a petition is a good way to ensure the rule is enforced.

8. Structural problems
Like most people in this city, you found a decent place to live and snapped it up before someone else could. But lately you’ve noticed some structural issues in your building. While uncovering violations is fairly simple, there’s a caveat you should be aware of. “In New York City, building violations are posted online for the public to see,” Bailey says. (You can look them up by going to nyc.gov and doing a search for your address.) If there aren't any violations on record, but you still worry that your building isn’t up to code, you can call 311 to file a complaint. Bailey says to keep this in mind, however: “Such a call may lead to your eviction if your apartment is violating the law, and the government is requiring the landlord to legalize it.”

9. The cost of no-fee rentals
In an effort to save cash, you’ve limited your apartment search to no-fee rentals. But surprise, surprise, every place you visit is super-expensive. What’s up with that? “No-fee apartments are a great option for people who want to avoid a broker’s fee and find a place on their own,” Quintana says. But he says they're likely to be in newer buildings that offer amenities like a doorman, gym and outdoor space. “They tend to be pricier than their fee-apartment counterparts,” Quintana adds, “so, what you save on the broker’s fee often gets rolled over into the annual cost of the rent.” The only real solution here is to figure out what works better financially for you—paying up-front or spreading out the cost over time.

10. Roommate hell
Roommates generally fall into three categories: BFF, not your BFF but cool enough to live with, and the worst person you could have possibly chosen to live with, ever. If they fall into the latter category, you may want them to move before the lease is up, but giving someone the boot isn't as simple as changing the locks. “If they’re a co-tenant on the lease you can’t evict them, even if you don’t want them there,” Himmelstein says. And even if they aren’t on the lease, think again before you throw their things onto the curb. “You’ll have to start what’s called a licensee holdover case against them, and first, a termination notice must be served," Himmelstein explains, adding, "There are many technical requirements involved in the language of the papers and the way they must be served, so it’s advisable not to do this without consulting an attorney knowledgeable in New York Landlord-Tenant law.” Good luck!  

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