Scaring my security deposit out of a slumlord
January 16, 2008 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Shady-Brooklyn-Landlord Filter: I don't have time to take him to court, but what if the notarized letter isn't enough to scare him?

Last January two friends and I moved into one of those diseased, rotting apartments that blight the Brooklyn landscape. Our landlord was clearly incompetent, but the place was cheap and it was all my meager intern salary could afford. We paid in cash, since he can't accept checks, were on time with rent, made no unreasonable complaints, and were generally decent tenants.

Things deteriorated bit by bit between us over the year, mainly due the landlord's tardiness in addressing pressing matters (no hot water, no heat in October, refusing to put peepholes on the doors and locks on the mailboxes) and by the time we moved out we were barely on speaking terms. When I started calling for the security deposit a week after we moved, he leveed these claims against us.

1. He is retroactively charging me rent for the basement that he allegedly would rent out to tenants, though it turned into a de-facto storage space that no one in the apartment building paid for but everyone still used. I never signed anything agreeing to this arrangement (nor did I do so verbally), but he seems to think he can charge $1000 nevertheless.

2. My roommate had bedbugs, twice. He exterminated, twice, though each time tried to make us pay for it. My roommate, who was most severely afflicted, agreed verbally to pay for half as she didn't know her rights. He's now trying to charge her for the full price, angering her to the point of refusing to pay at all.

3. When said roommate moved out and another girl took her place, our landlord refused to "let" her move in, saying that she hadn't signed a lease and might insist on staying longer. However, he didn't evict the new roommate and accepted her money until our lease was up and we moved out.

4. We moved in Jan. 1st of 2007, paid rent on the first of each month (all in cash), and I notified the landlord that we would be out by the 1st of 2008. Our lease ended on the 31st of December. One roommate spent this last night at the apartment and was there in the morning to hand the landlord our keys. The landlord is now ludicrously claiming that he is owed an entire month's rent for this overstay.

5. Because the two other original tenants moved out and their subletters simply paid their security deposit to the departing roommates (at the landlord's behest), two people who are not on the lease are now owed security deposits. Our landlord refuses to deal with either of the subletters and insists only on speaking to the original three tenants, though I am the only one on the lease who stayed the entire year.The two original tenants have signed waivers that transferred their claims to the security deposits to the subletters, though this hasn't changed our landlord's behavior to the subletters at all

I know his claims are wrong and a judge will likely favor us in small claims. The thing is, I don't want to miss a day of work to go through this ordeal. In addition to having the survival tactics of any money-grubbing slumlord, this man is also irrational, childish, and hell bent on keeping our deposit. I have a feeling to due to the poor quality of the building and the fact that he rents exclusively to poor white kids fresh out of college who don't know their rights, he's not used to tenants aggressively demanding deposits and has now become irate. During calm phone calls where I attempt to settle matters civilly, he is reduced to a high-pitched treble and sometimes sounds like he's near tears.

This is just your run-of-the-mill Hasidic slumlord who isn't affiliated with a Real Estate corp or anything of the sort, so I can't attack his superiors. We've taken the first step of sending a notified letter listing our rights to money, with the final threat that he will meet us in small-claims to settle the matter. Are there other legally-intimidating measures I might take to let this dude know we mean business?
posted by zoomorphic to Home & Garden (17 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: The mention of your landlord's religion pretty much doomed it. Try again next week without that detail -- mathowie


Hire a lawyer. That's the way to handle this with a minimum of hassle for you.
posted by grouse at 12:49 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

It is not always best to withhold the last month's rent. In some states, the tenant can be liable for triple damages and attorney's fees if they do so.
posted by grouse at 12:53 PM on January 16, 2008

You've lost your deposit. Even if a court rules in your favor, you have to collect, which is much harder than getting a judgment in your favor. Not that you shouldn't sue, because it becomes a public blemish on a scumbag.

IANAL, but you don't owe your landlord anything beyond that. He can cry all he wants about January rent, but unless you've got a contract with him that covers that scenario, it's all a bunch of smoke meant to intimidate you. He certainly has no leverage for stuff like exterminator bills.

Granted this doesn't solve your problem , but this is why it is always best to withhold the last month's rent. A bargaining chip in hand solves a lot of problems.

This is not good advice to follow. If you live there, you owe rent. That's an extremely cut-and-dry aspect of leasing. Your suggestion immediately creates an antagonistic relationship with your landlord and will make it more likely for them to nickel-and-dime you out of your deposit. And forget about that referral.

Not that those things matter in this specific scenario, but the larger point stands.
posted by mkultra at 1:00 PM on January 16, 2008

Response by poster: I'm almost positive we would win the case if we actually went to Small Claims, it's just that I'm paid hourly at a magazine and preparations for the upcoming Fashion Week is going to make it nearly impossible for me to take him to court. Otherwise I'd be more than happy to have a judge ridicule him for retroactively charging a tenant rent without any paperwork to prove it. In terms of a public blemish--he's a slumlord, a bottom feeder in the eyes of the rest of the city. Besides, he rent for cheap in an increasingly expensive, so he knows someone out there will sign a lease regardless of his reputation.
posted by zoomorphic at 1:08 PM on January 16, 2008

Response by poster: That was supposed to be: "He rents for cheap in an increasingly expensive area..."
posted by zoomorphic at 1:10 PM on January 16, 2008

You don't have to sue him right away. Write your letters and wait until after your busy period to sue him.
posted by electroboy at 1:14 PM on January 16, 2008

You should still file in small claims. You should be able to download the forms and go on your lunch hour to file. From then you can pay a process server $50 to serve the papers on him, after which a court date will be scheduled (likely after Fashion Week). Really, you're making a bigger deal out of this than it is, and collecting is no problem since there are a variety of remedies from garnishing his income, to liening his property, to having the sheriff confiscate his car and auctioning it off to get you your money.
posted by rhizome at 1:19 PM on January 16, 2008

First things first: if I'm reading you right, this dispute is 16 days old. According to the NYC Rent Guidelines Board, deposits should be returned within a reasonable time following the termination of the lease, and they say that's usually 30-60 days. Slow down, hoss.

Once you hit the end of the month, filing the complaint that ND$ suggested is probably a smart first step of escalating things, as is sending your landlord a copy of the complaint.

Next, call the court clerk and ask how long it usually takes for a case to be calendared after service. I have no idea when Fashion Week is, but wait until you're past the being-swamped point or near enough to the end that it won't matter, and then file.

Once he's been served (I believe the small claims court handles service in NYC and that there isn't a separate charge for it), you can send him another letter asking him again to settle the matter by paying the amount in question. There's a possibility of receiving treble damages in an overcharge proceeding following a complaint to the Attorney General's office. You might want to mention that in the letter. I think people start really paying attention once they are served with a complaint.

At the end of the day, you'll have to be prepared to either have an attorney do it or take time off work. Take a step back and think about it - is there really no time in the next 3 - 6 months for you to appear in court?
posted by averyoldworld at 1:23 PM on January 16, 2008

It is not always best to withhold the last month's rent. In some states, the tenant can be liable for triple damages and attorney's fees if they do so.

While living in Boston I, along with my roommate, withheld our last month's rent to cover ourselves from the near certainty that our slumlord would keep our security deposits as retribution against us for having had 8 months earlier called the city out to inspect the apartment for not being up to code. We withheld additional money on the grounds that the needed repairs prevented us from finding a 3rd roommate to fill the third bedroom (equivalent to what the 3rd person would have paid for a month). He was cited in that instance and fined, and then did do the repairs that he had promised but not delivered for months after we requested them.

He sued us, and we beat the motherfucker in small claims, AND won our counter suit, although we didn't pursue the money awarded. He was a complete joke in court.

We thought the decision would be a tossup before it was delivered - I think the fact that my roommate and I were well spoken and respectful in court while the slumlord, was, well, a stereotypical slumlord helped our case. Had he sent a clean cut lawyer to represent him, I think it may have turned out differently (keep in mind the difference between what happened to me and what the poster is dealing with - we specifically didn't pay some of the money due according to the lease agreement and he wanted that - he wasn't suing us for the security deposit on some basis of damage / overstay / etc).

Psychologically the slumlord portrayed here is exactly the same as the one I dealt with - he preyed on young post-college kids, and just lost it when faced with us. In this case I'm sure the poster would win for similar reasons.

If anyone faces this situation in the future, read up on your state's laws - we found absolutely everything we needed on the state of MA's website, laid out in easy prose. Don't be afraid of bully tactics.
posted by MillMan at 2:39 PM on January 16, 2008

Let me rephrase that last section - learn your state's tenant laws, and put yourself in the situation where he has to sue you instead of you having to sue him as best as you can, unless your state's laws are very biased towards the landlord. In MA they certainly were not.
posted by MillMan at 2:43 PM on January 16, 2008

This is just your run-of-the-mill Hasidic slumlord

First, while I sympathize with your plight, it might be nice not to include such statements in your question.

Second, dersins is right -- small claims actions are put on for the evening by default. If I'm understanding your question correctly, you're trying to avoid a lawsuit, and are instead seeking only to intimidate him into doing the right thing. I'm inclined to think this will be difficult, particularly if your landlord is knowledgeable about the law. Your instinct that he preys on his tenants' lack of knowledge and time is probably accurate. These kinds of disputes are wars of attrition, and you're going to have decide how much it means to you to get your deposit back.

The key is to make credible threats, and then to follow through with them. "If you don't return our security deposit by such and such date, we will be left with no option but to sue you in small claims court." Then, when the deadline passes, file suit. Go to court with all your roommates, and all your documents. If he shows up with an attorney, fight every move to adjourn the case (and there will be plenty -- see my comment above about wars of attrition), insisting that you work, can't afford to keep coming back to court, need the deposit, and so on. Try to involve the judge as much as possible, instead of dealing out in the hallway with your landlord or his attorney. Talk to the City-Wide Housing Court Task Force on the second floor of the court house at 141 Livingston and ask them for more advice.

Also, as far as I know, the specter of treble damages raised above is wrong. You don't say if your apartment is rent stabilized or not, but even if it were, the overcharge I think referenced above refers to landlords who willfully overcharge rent stabilized tenants in their leases.

None of the above is legal advice from me to your or any reader, nor does it create a lawyer-client relationship of any kind between us.
posted by lassie at 4:30 PM on January 16, 2008

Response by poster: This is just your run-of-the-mill Hasidic slumlord

First, while I sympathize with your plight, it might be nice not to include such statements in your question.

Sure, sure. Unfortunately, there are specific aspects to our relationship that come to light when Iimplicitly identify myself as a non-member of his community: he's a small business guy who's working as a part of a larger communal network of landlords who own property in this area, make repairs on the same buildings, and rent to white kids rather than Hispanics. Anyone in Brooklyn would immediately apprehend why he won't take checks, not mention why a jury might unfairly look favorably on me and my white bread subletters rather than on him, a lone Shylockian landlord petrified in his own stereotype predetermined by specific demographic histories and social strata. It's sad but true, and far more complicated than niceties will allow.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:50 PM on January 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I recognize the complexity of the situation because I am in Brooklyn, and I practice L&T law on a daily basis in this borough, representing tenants. I still don't see why your landlord's ethnicity or religious beliefs are important to your question. Sleazy landlords are sleazy landlords, and it certainly sounds like he's a sleazy landlord. I wish you luck.
posted by lassie at 4:21 AM on January 17, 2008

It was just one detail, lassie, in a very long question full of details. And considering the limited ways in which Hasidim are allowed to interact with women (and the poster is one) and the sharp cultural divide between them, I think it's completely relevant.

A sleazy landlord is a sleazy landlord, but in that particular area, most of the buildings are owned by the same kind of people who have the same approach to business, and their strength in numbers reinforces the crap they pull and shields them from consequences. It can't help but be addressed. It's not the last word, just something to consider.

The inference that the poster's mention of his ethnicity/religion might be a bad thing to bring up to a court official is valid, but any inference that this reflects an anti-Semitic POV isn't really fair. When your culture completely subsumes your identity to the point where they are inseparable, it makes it impossible to disparage one without risking offense against the other.

As a person who escaped a similar situation a couple years ago (but got my money back), I'm very sympathetic. Go get 'im.
posted by hermitosis at 7:40 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mod note: any further discussion of the hasidic/shylockain aspect of this needs to go to Metatalk, thanks
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:09 PM on January 17, 2008

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