Bushwick has been shedding its cheap rent status for a while now, with raising rents in the neighborhood driving some residents as far as, say, East Bushwick. But it turns out that the $300 rent increase your landlord so casually handed you a few months ago might not be legal; apparently, a large number of rentals in the neighborhood are rent-stabilized, and you could be entitled to some extra bucks (and cheaper future rent!) if your digs fit the criteria.
We spoke with Sally Robinson, a housing attorney in Brooklyn, and she says that the practice of landlords illegally overcharging for rent is widespread in Bushwick, as well as in other rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. “It’s a big problem,” she told us. “If you don’t know your apartment is rent-stabilized, you won’t know that your rent is supposed to be at a certain level, along with a host of other protections you could receive through rent stabilization.” According to a 2008 housing survey, 42 percent of the housing stock in Brooklyn is rent-stabilized, with much of that stock located in Bushwick. And if your apartment building has six or more units and was built between 1947 and 1974, you may have been served with an illegal rent increase.
In order to find out if you’re entitled to lower rents, Robinson suggests reaching out to the state agency that regulates rent regulation, the New York State Homes and Community Renewal, to obtain your apartment’s rent history. They can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), and you should include your name or the name of your leaseholder, your address and your apartment number. “Take a look at rent last registered for the apartment,” Robinson says. “If the rent is $300-$400 lower than your current rent, it’s worth filing a complaint with the HCR to see if you’re paying too much.” According to Robinson rent overcharge claims regularly yield results handing thousands of dollars back to the tenant, and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.
There are some justifications to a rent hike: if your landlord did enough renovations to your apartment to justify raising the rent above $2,500, the apartment will no longer be rent stabilized. However, he has to prove those renovations are significant enough for such a raise; a new paint job isn’t going to cut it. And Robinson stresses that now’s the time to check up on that rent history, since there’s a four-year statute of limitations when it comes to filing a rent overcharge claim. “Because there are so many new people moving into Bushwick, it’s a critical moment to find out if you were rent stabilized,” she says. “In three to four years, you won’t be able to challenge it.”
Neighborhood newbies aren’t the only people getting screwed by Bushwick landlords. “A lot of older people who depend on social security and fixed incomes are living in these old rent-stabilized units, and as all the new folks come in, the pressure on them becomes extreme,” Robinson says. Landlords will often withhold necessary services like maintenance and heat and hot water in hopes of driving out older residents who pay stabilized rent. “Landlords know if they sit it out long enough, the tenant will get frustrated. They can put new paint job in the apartment and charge $900 more.”
If you think you’re getting overcharged illegally on your rent, contact LawHelpNY.org for free legal consultation.