Massive backlog of New York rent hike complaints leaves tenants frustrated, angry

The agency charged with investigating landlords accused of illegally overcharging tenants in rent stabilized apartments is so far backed up that some cases have lingered as long as four years — leaving tenants angry and frustrated.

New York State Assemblywoman Emily Gallagher told the Daily News she learned of the backlog at the Office of Rent Administration while investigating a constituent’s case.

Without an avenue to resolve allegations of overcharging, tenants can find themselves unfairly priced out of their homes.

People gather for a rally protesting rent hikes at City Hall Park on April 28, 2022.

People gather for a rally protesting rent hikes at City Hall Park on April 28, 2022. (Michael M Santiago/Getty Images /Getty Images)

“If it takes four years to get that money back and you’re still being overcharged the entire time, you can’t afford that apartment,” Andrea Shapiro, a tenant advocate with the Met Council on Housing, told The News. “The implications are huge.”

Under state law, landlords cannot raise rents for rent stabilized apartments beyond statutorily approved hikes — unless they make building-wide or apartment-specific improvements, such as installing a new stove or flooring. Even so, these rent increases need to be approved by the state Department of Homes and Community Renewal.

The conflict arises when a tenant believes the landlord has inflated the value of those upgrades, or in some cases, fabricated them altogether.

Nick LeMessurier is in a battle with his Brooklyn landlord over what he says are unlawful overcharges. After ten years in his rent stabilized, two-bedroom apartment, LeMessurier said his landlord jacked up the rent 20% last year — from $1,650 to $2,000. He claims his landlord told him the apartment was no longer stabilized, something that often happens while a unit is vacant and gets substantially renovated.

But his unit wasn’t vacant or renovated, LeMessurier said. Six months after filing a report, LeMessurier hasn’t heard back.

“When I called them they just told me that no one has been put on the case.”

Now, he said, his landlord is demanding $3,500 per month and threatening eviction.

“The New York rental market right now is vicious,” LeMessurier, a designer, said. “For me to have my housing insecure would mean that I would immediately have to leave the city.”

Officials at the Office of Rent Administration would not confirm how deep the backlog runs, but said that fewer cases are being processed each year after recent office closures and COVID-related court delays. The Office of Rent Administration is a department under the umbrella of the state Department of Homes and Community Renewal.

People gather for a rally protesting rent hikes at City Hall Park on April 28, 2022.

People gather for a rally protesting rent hikes at City Hall Park on April 28, 2022. (Michael M Santiago/GettyImages/Getty Images)

The agency currently has 27 employees who are responsible for processing over 20,000 complaints of illegal overcharges each year.

Teddy Thomas is a frustrated tenant in Harlem who has been waiting since 2019 for a resolution to a complaint he filed after his landlord hiked his rent following the installation of USB ports and LED lighting. But Thomas said that never happened.

Thomas said he has filed complaints in person, messaged the agency’s commissioner on LinkedIn, and even requested public records from the state about his case to find out what happened. None of his attempts were successful, and he has since moved out of his apartment, he said.

With administrative solutions stalled, many tenants have tuned to the courts.

Last month, hundreds of tenants across 11 Harlem buildings whose rent was increased by over $1,500 a month for “individual apartment improvements” — like replacing a stove or toilet — had a class-action suit against their landlords certified.

According to the lawsuit filed by the tenants, the improvements would have had to cost over $83,000 for one tenant to legally justify the monthly rent increases. The landlords didn’t provide evidence of any improvements, the suit states. If the tenants win the lawsuit or reach a settlement, their leases could revert to stabilized rent and some could get paid back for overcharges, according to the tenants’ attorney.

Tenants are getting priced out of their apartments before ORA even reviews their cases, Sam Stein, a housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society of New York, told The News. “What else are they supposed to do?”

“The problem with [the system] is it assumes that tenants know their rights, they have the information that their rights have been violated, and they have the fortitude to go up against their landlord,” Stein said, but they often don’t.

In the meantime, some New Yorkers are clawing at last-ditch efforts like letting landlords try to evict them. John Paraskevopoulos, legislative director for Assemblywoman Gallagher (D-Brooklyn), along with other policy experts said getting assigned a free attorney in housing court is often the quickest way for tenants to get their cases heard.

“But telling people to let the landlord take them to the brink of homelessness?” Paraskevopoulos said. “That should not be our safety net.”

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