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Legal options for emergency lease breaking
January 19, 2010 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Need to leave NYC apt due to bed bugs and need to break lease. How do do it? Need advice.

I know you can't normally break a lease early , but this situation is a bit different. My friend has had an apt in NYC for about 3 months. Bed bugs occurred about 1 month after moving in (he then found out from other tenants that the previous occupant had fled the apt for the same reason). The landlord agreed to have the place treated. It worked temporarily but unfortunately bed bugs can return and they did. He's got another 8 months left on the lease , but clearly he can't live in an apt with a chronic bed bug problem. My questions are:
1) How can sign a new lease on a new apt while still holding the current lease? Will the new realtors know about his current situation he's trying to get out of?
2) Is it within his rights to notify the landlord that he's leaving immediately because of the bedbugs? I know usually, notice should be given before leaving, but in this situation he simply cant stay, and this seems to fall under the landlord's responsibility for providing a comfortable living space free of insects.
Hopefully the landlord will be reasonable and agree to let him leave as soon as he can, but if they try to hold him responsible for the remaining months, what legal options does he have?

Any advice would help , many thanks.
posted by Liquidwolf to Law & Government (20 answers total)
 
Did he just have the apartment treated the once? You need to be way more diligent than that.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:06 AM on January 19, 2010


Springboarding off the previous answer -- I think that things would look better from a legal standpoint, as well, if you made at least one more attempt to fumigate the place before breaking the lease (at least, to this layman's eyes it seems that way -- it makes it look like you tried to work with the landlord before getting out rather than just saying "whoop, I'm outta here").
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:10 AM on January 19, 2010


A concept you should learn about: Implied Warranty of Habitability

If it were me, personally, I'd consider writing a letter to the landlord. I'd say something along the lines of "This is a problem that makes the place unlivable. You need to take care of this. I will be staying with a friend for x days. If the problem is not corrected by then I will stay in a hotel and I think you should pay for it. If the problem continues I will be forced to abandon the lease because you aren't holding up your end of the deal."

I'm not licensed for general practice in New York and don't have time now to look up the New York statute covering habitability. YMMV.
posted by jock@law at 10:15 AM on January 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Get a hold of the landlord and get exterminators out again. If they won't, or it doesn't work, call 311 and file a complaint.
posted by jckll at 10:17 AM on January 19, 2010


My go to place for answers on stuff like this is the NYC rent guidelines board. Best of luck to your friend!
posted by Grither at 10:17 AM on January 19, 2010


IANALACROVTS (IANAL and cannot recommend or vet these sites), BUT here's a few that specifically address tenant rights/LL obligations regarding bedbugs in NYC:

http://newyorkvsbedbugs.org/2009/07/13/bed-bugs-and-the-law-in-new-york-city/

http://www.metcouncil.net/factsheets/bedbugs.htm

Of course you'll need to scrutinize your friend's specific lease, but my basic understanding is that the LL is allowed time to make the apartment sanitary/fit for living conditions before he's in breach--meaning that unless the LL refuses to treat the apartment again, your friend doesn't yet have grounds to break the lease without penalty.

Couple of notes:
- My brother in DC had to have his apt treated 3 times before his were gone.
- You can also call 311 for information -- they were helpful in telling me my rights with a deadbeat LL and bedbugs.
- If your friend does end up moving, tell him/her to be SUPER careful with what he takes. After my own bedbug fiasco I ditched most of my furniture and bought cheap new stuff when I went to a new apartment, and washed/dried/bagged all textiles like a crazywoman. BBs can transfer very easily, and if your friend brings them to a new apartment he/she may be liable in part for treating the new place.
posted by alleycat01 at 10:31 AM on January 19, 2010


Thanks for the replies. He is getting the place treating a second time. But we're not expecting that to solve the bedbug problem permanently. It seems like a chronic issue, especially since the tenant before him had the same problem and abandoned the apt finally because of it. The landlord knew that.

The Tenants Rights Guide of NY law it states:
Under the warranty of habitability, tenants have the right
to a livable, safe and sanitary apartment. This is a right that
is implied in every written or oral residential lease. Any lease
provision that waives this right is contrary to public policy and
is therefore void. Examples of a breach of this warranty in-
clude the failure to provide heat or hot water on a regular ba-
sis, or the failure to rid an apartment of an insect infestation.


Wouldn't this situation seem to apply? And if so wouldn't leaving without notice or consequence be acceptable?
posted by Liquidwolf at 10:45 AM on January 19, 2010


Wouldn't this situation seem to apply? And if so wouldn't leaving without notice or consequence be acceptable?

It would seem to apply if you have documented proof of continued neglect on the landlord's part to rectify the situation.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:47 AM on January 19, 2010


As I understand bedbugs, one thing about leaving a bedbuggy apartment is that the bedbugs will have laid eggs on all his stuff- his clothing, furniture, bedding, etc. So they'll probably turn up at the next apartment, too. I

wonder if it wouldn't be more cost-effective to convince the landlord to treat the place a couple times, really diligently, to kill the bedbugs that are currently living in his stuff. In other words, make sure the current landlord takes care of this problem before your friend brings it with him to a new apartment and causes a new chronic problem there. And then, once the problem is eradicated, there may not be that much point in moving if bugs were really the only bad issue, so he may save himself a ton of hassle by just staying put.

Also, keep in mind that the landlord *may* be a slummy jerk who didn't work hard enough to treat the old place, and hid the problem from your friend-- or he may just have paid good money to some exterminators, and then just assumed the problem was actually solved. Assuming good faith on his part might help this go smoother. I dunno the guy though, so your mileage may vary.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:10 AM on January 19, 2010


If we thought that treating the apartment would actually get rid of the bugs then there would be no need to break the lease. But knowing how bed bugs are, and considering they were there before he got there ( which means it's already been treated numerous times in the past) just means that they'll probably keep coming back.

They bugs aren't actually THAT bad, so the risk of carrying them to another place seems low since it's not an infestation. But regardless, any bed bugs are too many , and nobody wants to stay in a place where they are. So he wants outta there before they get worse.
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:20 AM on January 19, 2010


Call 311 and have them refer you to resources that tell you what your rights are in this situation.
posted by dfriedman at 11:36 AM on January 19, 2010


This seems a bit shady to me. I live in NYC, and am very sympathetic to those w/ landlord problems (I've had my own, as my AskMeFi history will attest) and/or bed bugs, but if I were a judge looking at the case, I'd be drawn to the presumption that the tenant used the bed bug situation as an excuse to get out of the lease, and didn't try to live up to his end of the contract.

What's particularly troubling is this notion that the tenant should be able to vacate with little or no notice to the landlord and with no repercussions at all.

I think the best/most ethical course of action is to document everything: take pictures of the bedbugs, keep copies of the emails/letters to the landlord, and do your legal research before making any decisions. One of the links above will refer you to a 2004 case where tenants withheld rent until the bedbug situation was resolved.

One other question: you say that "knowing how bed bugs are" "they're probably coming back". You also say that the previous tenant left the apartment because of the bed bugs. So I'm wondering if your friend knew about the bed bug problem before moving in. If so, it's kind of shitty to then use the existence of the bed bugs, "which aren't actually THAT bad," as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Bottom line: based on what I've seen so far, your friend's case is on the weak side.
posted by BobbyVan at 11:54 AM on January 19, 2010


Scratch my "one other" question -- I just re-read and see that your friend learned of the previous tenants' experience with the bedbugs after moving in. But you can still put me in the skeptical column about your suggested course of action.
posted by BobbyVan at 11:58 AM on January 19, 2010


Wouldn't this situation seem to apply? And if so wouldn't leaving without notice or consequence be acceptable?

Even if this is a breach of the warranty of habitability, that doesn't mean your friend gets to choose whatever remedy he wants. The appropriate remedy may be to give the landlord time to properly fix the problem (which, with bedbugs, can legitimately take several treatments), to withhold rent (I am not recommending this), to take the landlord to court, or to break the lease with adequate notice (please note that I do not know if this is a proper remedy in this case and I am not recommending it).

Finally, there is some caselaw in New York that a landlord does not have to mitigate his damages if a tenant breaks a lease. (Generally, if Party A breaks a contract with Party B, Party B has an obligation to try to lessen the damage caused by the breach. So, if Party A refuses to buy the widgets he contracted to buy, Party B has to try to find another buyer, and can't just force Party A to eat the entire cost of the unbought widgets.)

This means that a tenant who breaks a lease could be on the hook for the rent he would have paid during the entire lease, and the landlord can sit on his ass and not try to find a new tenant.

I am not an expert on this particular area of L&T law, and I am not giving you or your friend legal advice--just warning you that your friend should really not rely on what seems fair to him.

Your friend needs to consult a lawyer before breaking a lease. Memail me if you want referrals to some reputable tenant attorneys.
posted by Mavri at 12:15 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks again. For the replies.


Scratch my "one other" question -- I just re-read and see that your friend learned of the previous tenants' experience with the bedbugs after moving in. But you can still put me in the skeptical column about your suggested course of action.


There's nothing shady on his end. He'd like stay in the apartment, he doesn't want to leave it, but an an apartment with bed bugs is not a habitable place by most people's standards. And when I say it's not THAT bad, I mean it's not a TOTAL infestation, but he's getting bitten by them, and that's bad enough. Like I said if the treatments work then it's not an issue but so far, after several it hasn't.
posted by Liquidwolf at 12:55 PM on January 19, 2010


There's nothing shady on his end. He'd like stay in the apartment, he doesn't want to leave it, but an an apartment with bed bugs is not a habitable place by most people's standards.

Oh, in practical reality, most of us would agree it's not shady. But if this thing DOES go to a legal step, right now, it just looks like the other guy's lawyer still has some stuff he can point to and make a case that "this looks shady from our angle, your honor." It's just a good idea to cut out as many of those legal arguments as you can (by doing things like contacting 311, trying one more time to get an exterminator in, etc.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:05 PM on January 19, 2010


Right, he's proceeding with the 311 call, and another extermination. And he'll get more legal advice from the Metro Housing Council.
posted by Liquidwolf at 1:16 PM on January 19, 2010


That's a fine conclusion you came to there--311, extermination, etc.

For a little background underpinning your plans, particularly for those of you who are newer in New York, my tenant experience is this:

This ain't Topeka! Pretty much no one in New York City cares if you "break" a lease. In other parts of the world, breaking a lease is a big deal. In New York City? We say "Hi, I'm moving out" to landlords all the time. Some may be jerks about it. Some may not give you back your security deposit. However, with our endlessly depressed vacancy rate, landlords in general are very happy to get rid of you and bump the rent as much as is then legally allowed. (Or, quite likely, even more.)

What exactly is this landlord going to do? Sue you for breach of lease in housing court? That would be pretty much a very amusing experience for everyone involved.

AGAIN: others will disagree with this, particularly lawyers. I AM NOT ONE, proceed AYOR, etc.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 1:38 PM on January 19, 2010


Pretty much no one in New York City cares if you "break" a lease. In other parts of the world, breaking a lease is a big deal. In New York City? We say "Hi, I'm moving out" to landlords all the time. Some may be jerks about it. Some may not give you back your security deposit. However, with our endlessly depressed vacancy rate, landlords in general are very happy to get rid of you and bump the rent as much as is then legally allowed.

This is foolishness. Don't listen to it.
posted by dfriedman at 2:12 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pretty much no one in New York City cares if you "break" a lease. In other parts of the world, breaking a lease is a big deal. In New York City? We say "Hi, I'm moving out" to landlords all the time. Some may be jerks about it. Some may not give you back your security deposit. However, with our endlessly depressed vacancy rate, landlords in general are very happy to get rid of you and bump the rent as much as is then legally allowed.

Bad advice alert.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:15 PM on January 19, 2010


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