In the past couple of weeks, I have been assisting a number of New York City residents affected by Hurricane Sandy with landlord-tenant issues. So many NYC residents continue to suffer in Sandy’s aftermath. While we all like to imagine that the City is pulling together and helping each other – and many are – there are still others who are using this tragedy for personal gain.
My first post-Hurricane clients, a couple from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, called in a panic because their management company informed them that they needed to move out immediately after the hurricane hit. My clients did not dispute that their apartment was completely destroyed. They had moved in temporarily with friends, and had found a new, permanent residence. Unfortunately, their new apartment would not be ready for move-in for three days, and they could not retrieve what was left of their belongings from their destroyed home in the meantime because they lacked storage. Scared, homeless, living without heat or electricity, having lost almost all of their worldly possessions – and their management company was applying such pressure on them to move their possessions out immediately that they were forced to waste precious time seeking legal assistance, rather than attending to their most basic needs.
An even more egregious case came to me from a young professional man in Red Hook, Brooklyn. My client was facing a similar situation – a landlord applying inordinate pressure to vacate an apartment following the hurricane – only this time, the apartment was not even destroyed. It had sustained very minor damage, of the sort that any competent handy man could repair in a day or two of work while the tenant continued to live in the apartment. However, the landlord, upon receiving a large payment from FEMA and/or insurance, decided to gut renovate the building so that the units could be re-rented at higher monthly rates.
My advice to both sets of clients was largely the same: STAY. Landlords cannot evict tenants without a court order, and that takes considerable time. Given that many of the city courts remained closed for an extended period of time post-hurricane, it was highly unlikely that the management company for my Sheepshead Bay clients could have gotten an eviction order during the measly three days that my clients sought to remain in possession of their destroyed apartment. The management company is not entitled to lock the tenants out or remove their property from the premises – only a sheriff or marshal can physically evict a tenant, and only with a court order. The clients cannot be deemed to have abandoned their interest in the apartment, given the circumstances and short duration of their absence. For my Red Hook client, I informed him that he has a lease, and as long as he provides his landlord access to the apartment to make appropriate repairs, he is entitled to remain in possession of his apartment.
Unfortunately, however, there is the law, and there is the practical reality. The management company in Sheepshead Bay is not entitled, even under these emergency circumstances, to engage in what we call “self-help” eviction. It can’t forcibly remove my clients or their property from the premises. Does that mean it won’t happen? Unfortunately, no. And, with the courts closed or operating at less-than-full capacity, and the NYPD attending to much more pressing matters, there is little infrastructure available to enforce even these most basic tenant rights. My Red Hook tenant intends to stay in his home, and he has every right to. But I was forced to counsel him as to the practical reality: Yes, you can stay, as long as you pay your rent and allow your landlord access to make repairs. But don’t expect a renewal lease, so eventually you will need to move. And, between now and then, fully expect your landlord to make your life as miserable as possible because you didn’t cave to his demands. Your landlord needs to repair the heating mechanism and have power restored promptly. But if your fellow tenants have moved out and you’re the last tenant standing, don’t expect your comfort to be a priority for the landlord, even if it is his legal obligation to ensure that your living situation complies with the warranty of habitability.
These issues are frightfully common right now, particularly in the outer boroughs. If you or someone you know is on the receiving end of these or similar tactics, don’t hesitate to contact this office, or one of the many legal assistance helplines established to assist with Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath.