Can I break my lease after fire from landlord negligence (more inside)?
November 5, 2011 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Landlord negligence caused a fire in the apartment below me, causing significant damage in my apartment; had to temporarily relocate. Looking to explore my legal options/rights/advice.

My girlfriend and I live in a 90 year-old walkup building in downtown NYC. Last week in the mid-afternoon the management company performed renovations in the apartment below mine and started a fire. When the FDNY came to control it, they took some heavy axe action on my bedroom wall, ceiling, and floors. There is ash everywhere, and the smell is suffocating. Lots of clothes/shoes ruined or at least will be $100s in dry-cleaning (really we got lucky, this could have been way worse). We weren't notified when this happen, but when we both got home late after work (about 8 hours after fire) we had a Red Cross Disaster Services sticker on the door (they paid home a visit), then immediately called the super and he explained what happened.

Obviously we didn't sleep there. That night I emailed the management company requesting the lease break so I could start looking for new apartments. For work related reasons, I don't have time for this and just need a new stable situation. The next day they refused my request, but later I found out they hadn't yet come to the apartment to survey the damage. I was there the next day when they management company rep saw it and he was visibly stunned. They said they'd work through the weekend to try to fix all the damage and clean it up, so I'm out of state now at a relative's house. I took pictures of everything, emailed them to the landlord and the management company and requested a meeting next week. Also sent them a blog post which referenced their responsibility for starting the fire. There are a number of other issues with the apartment (roof leaks, cracks, bugs, etc), and really I'd just like to get the hell out regardless. My law friends said I have a good case with Constructive Eviction, but if they fix the damage then that won't hold.

What do you think the best course of action is here, given either the management company or a subcontractor of the company started the fire? And they haven't exactly been helpful (never offered any temporary relocation by landlord).
posted by kelechv to Home & Garden (7 answers total)
Do you have renter's insurance? Without knowing the details of your policy, you may find that it's better for your sanity to file a big claim w/ the insurance company and let them go after the landlord for damages.
posted by BobbyVan at 1:40 PM on November 5, 2011

First: Take screenshots of that blog post. If you see anything online that shows them implying responsibility, save it!

Document everything.

Take tons of pictures of everything. Itemize every single loss (that will suck and take forever).

Contact the local news station, tell them your story (including how you were never offered temporary or permanent relocation!), show them some of the better pictures of the damage?
posted by Heretical at 1:40 PM on November 5, 2011

Response by poster: never got renter's insurance (we've only lived in this apartment about 4 months). sounds idiotic not to have it in retrospect, especially since it is a relative pittance each month. lesson learned here! good call on the documentation. I saved that whole blog post as a .pdf. I should also mention that the management company was very evasive on the question of what caused the fire. I only found out because the super was not as tight-lipped.
posted by kelechv at 1:45 PM on November 5, 2011

There will be a tenant's rights and/or legal aid office listed in the phone book. Either get legal help or a referral from them. Your best chance at a reasonable resolution is a good lawyer.

IANAL Your landlord has broken the lease by not providing you with a habitable living space. And they should be liable for damages. Take lots of pictures, and carefully document every single expense. Mileage, cleaning costs, items destroyed, hotel, etc.

What a rotten situation, good luck, and I'm glad you're safe. At least you weren't endangered.
posted by theora55 at 1:50 PM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

It looks as if you can request a fire incident report from FDNY. That may provide you with evidence that the fire was the landlord's fault.

Also, go to HPD online and look up your building's violation records to determine if there are enough class C violations to make your apartment not really habitable.

I don't have any really good advice beyond that. Just know that HPD tends not to enforce things all that well, so you're going to have to do any legwork on your own.

Good luck, I'm sorry about your apartment, and I hope you find a new place to live soon.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:58 PM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Adding to looking up your building online... Call and get an inspection. I suspect your apartment isn't habitable, even with the weekend clean-up.

Get the fire report.

The contractor should have insurance, too, and you might be able to put in a claim there. Or sue him in small claims.
posted by jbenben at 4:42 PM on November 5, 2011

Best answer: kelechv, I'm sorry your apt and stuff has been wrecked. That sucks.
New York State Attorney General Tenants' Right Guide "If an apartment is so severely damaged by fire or other circumstances not caused by the tenant that the apartment becomes uninhabitable, and the lease does not expressly provide otherwise, the tenant may vacate the apartment and cancel the lease on three days’ notice to the landlord. The tenant will be released from liability for subsequent rental payments. Real Property Law § 227."
New York State Real Property Code § 227 "When tenant may surrender premises. Where any building, which is leased or occupied, is destroyed or so injured by the elements, or any other cause as to be untenantable, and unfit for occupancy, and no express agreement to the contrary has been made in writing, the lessee or occupant may, if the destruction or injury occurred without his or her fault or neglect, quit and surrender possession of the leasehold premises, and of the land so leased or occupied; and he or she is not liable to pay to the lessor or owner, rent for the time subsequent to the surrender. Any rent paid in advance or which may have accrued by the terms of a lease or any other hiring shall be adjusted to the date of such surrender."
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 8:57 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

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