Breaking a lease in NYC?
September 30, 2014 6:26 PM   Subscribe

You are not my lawyer. About 5 months ago I broke my lease on an apartment in Queens (NYC). I was worried that the landlord wouldn't find a new tenant in time for the next month but luckily he did. I asked about the security deposit and he said it was on its way. Now he's claiming that I'm not owed the money back.

Five months later I still have not received the deposit and now he is claiming that he does not owe it back to me because I broke the lease. In these last 5 months there have been several sketchy phone conversations and at least one e-mail saying that the check was on its way, but up until yesterday no mention of the lease-breaking as a reason for its delay.

My question is: since a new lessee was found and there was no loss of rent-revenue for him, does he still have grounds to hold on to my security deposit?

I cannot overstate what a sleazebag slumlord this guy is, unfortunately nothing about the apartment was quite broken enough to warrant a completely faultless lease-break.

It was my understanding from many of the things that I have read that as long as a tenant was found to take over the lease he didn't have any right to keep my deposit, but I can't actually find it in NYC or NYS housing law stated as such. I just want to make sure that I can go to him with specific quoted laws supporting my case...if any exist.

Any help is much appreciated.
posted by aloiv2 to Law & Government (9 answers total)
Does your lease have a clause about early termination? I would try calling the Met Council on Housing...they should have an answer.
posted by three_red_balloons at 6:42 PM on September 30, 2014

Response by poster: Yeah, the Met Council is one of the places I went, they say:

"However, if your landlord does find a new tenant and that tenant pays rent for part of your lease period, your landlord cannot sue you for those months that he collected rent from someone else."

Unfortunately it doesn't list where in housing law that is.
posted by aloiv2 at 6:54 PM on September 30, 2014

The origin of that may not be in housing law - it is common law duty to mitigate, a general contracts idea.
posted by mercredi at 6:59 PM on September 30, 2014

Has he expressed a rationale for why he's entitled to keep the money other than "you can't make me give it back?" i.e. is he saying "I'm keeping this because you didn't pay rent for the full duration of your lease" or is he saying "deal's off, sucker, and I'm totally keeping your money?"

Neither seems especially likely to me to be permissible given what you have described but it would be good to know what precisely he's claiming so that we can build a counterargument if possible.

Rental law is usually very local but that wouldn't fly anywhere that I've ever lived or rented and in most jurisdictions I am familiar with the laws that are meant to force landlords to return deposits have some significant teeth (because in general counting on landlords to do the right thing leads to pretty variable results.)

The response you quote from the council advisers you consulted doesn't seem very on-point -- as you have described it your dispute with the landlord is not over uncollected rent but is over a (possibly) wrongly withheld security deposit.

Maybe try asking again and hope that this time you get someone more clueful?
posted by Nerd of the North at 7:57 PM on September 30, 2014

Well, if I were you, I'd thank my lucky stars that the landlord found someone to take over the lease, and I'd chalk up the lost security deposit to a lesson learned. From what I understand, in NYC it is actually the tenant's responsibility to find someone to rent the vacant space; the landlord is not responsible for finding a replacement. So you could have been out a lot more money than you are now.
posted by girl flaneur at 9:08 PM on September 30, 2014

Response by poster: He wanted to find someone to take over the lease because he wanted it to go through his broker, who I'm sure is giving him a cut, so that ball was out of my court.

I refuse to take the standpoint "lesson learned" on this whole thing.
I went through every step properly from alerting him to my intentions 60 days ahead of time, to scheduling visits with his real estate agent so they could show the place. I even painted a room that had water damage from his leaking roof/insulation.
I made sure that a new tenant had signed before I moved out just in case.
posted by aloiv2 at 9:21 PM on September 30, 2014

Right, but just because you alerted him 60 days ahead of time doesn't mean that you didn't break a contract; and breaking your contract will almost always cost you some money. Now you say that the landlord lost no rental income, but can he claim that it cost him money to find a new tenant? Broker fees? If so, you are responsible for this. Was there an early termination fee mentioned in your lease?

One lesson I think everyone can learn from this situation: if you come to some agreement with your landlord under similar circumstances, you need to settle your terms and get them in writing.

Refuse away and fight the fight, if you want. Your next step is small claims court. Did you do a walk through with your landlord once you vacated the unit? And did you document any damages done? And did you get all this in writing? If not, your landlord could turn around and say that there was $1500 (or whatever) worth of damage to the apartment and that is the reason he is keeping your deposit.
posted by girl flaneur at 10:31 PM on September 30, 2014

I think your next step is talking to a tenant's attorney. A sternly worded letter from an attorney, stating that you know your rights under the law, may be all that is needed to get the landlord to pay up.

Do not go to housing court right away. Many landlords blacklist those who go to housing court, regardless of whether they are in the right, so that could impede your future chances of finding apartments in NYC.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:19 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my experience, breaking a lease has always cost me (at a minimum) the security deposit, and often more, whether or not a new tenant was found. Check your lease documents, there should be a clause covering early termination. If there's nothing in there, I'd call a tenant's attorney.
posted by loolie at 7:02 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

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