Do tenants who’ve lost heat and hot water have to pay full rent?

It’s a question frequently heard these days on the streets of New York City: Can I get a break on my rent after losing heat, hot water or power for weeks?

The answer, say tenant lawyers and property owners, is yes – in principle. Residents of hundreds of New York City Housing Authority buildings affected by superstorm Sandy learned this week that they will be getting a rent credit. Tenants in privately owned buildings, meanwhile, will have to decide how hard they’re prepared to fight.

That’s the question now facing Aicha Teffahi, 34, who lives on West 22nd street in Coney Island and lost power for 12 days. With the neighborhood still reeling from Sandy, her landlord came by and collected November’s rent in full.

“She don’t reduce the rent,” Teffahi said of her landlord. (Her building’s owner could not be reached for comment on Friday.) Teffahi said the building’s heat and hot water remained touch-and-go on Thursday.

But legally, tenants in Teffahi’s predicament are likely entitled to a reduction, suggests the Rent Stabilization Association, a major lobby group for residential landlords.

“Even though the loss of heat, hot water or other services arose from an act of nature, the tenant is probably entitled to a rent abatement of some amount for the period of time that they are without services,” RSA advised on its blog this week. “The amount of the abatement will depend on the specific services that the owner was unable to provide and the amount of time the tenant is without those services.”

For many tenants, that amount of time continues to grow. Wasim Lone, director of housing services for the tenant advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side, said that even after more than two weeks since the storm had passed, his organization is still hearing from tenants in the downtown Manhattan neighborhood without full utilities.

“We had a building just an hour ago where landlords put up a sign that said ‘No heat or hot water until further notice.’ No other communication,” Lone said on Wednesday. “And that’s not acceptable.”

Lone says tenants should always notify their landlords and call 311 first to report outages of heat, hot water or power. If utilities continue to fail, he said, withholding rent is an option, particularly for rent-regulated tenants who are guaranteed lease renewals. In this scenario, tenants can expect to go to housing court for nonpayment. With lack of utilities as a defense, a tenant could conceivably get a rent reduction.

Even if they win in housing court, however, tenants shouldn’t expect to receive a large sum for their trouble.

“It’s rare to get a full month’s rent in an abatement,” said Kamilla Sjodin, supervising attorney for the Housing Project at New York Legal Assistance Group. For tenants nervous about inviting eviction proceedings in housing court, attorneys say small claims court is an alternative.

For the most hard-hit tenants, who’ve been forced to vacate their apartments, their rights are more straightforward: while displaced, tenants should not be paying, period.

“If the place you rent to live in becomes unlivable, you are no longer liable to pay rent for the space,” said Bruno Bianchi, a tenant attorney.

Occupants of rent-regulated apartments may want to hold on to their leases, to ensure their ability to return at an affordable rent. Tenant attorneys advise rent-regulated tenants who’ve been displaced to apply to the state Homes and Community Renewal agency to have their rent reduced to a $1 a month until the apartment is habitable again. Doing so ensures tenants will be allowed back into their apartments once they are repaired, with no rent increase.

“It’s a form of security,” said David Hershey-Webb, a tenant lawyer.

Homes and Community Renewal has set up an online application for storm-affected tenants, and advises them to indicate FEMA or Hurricane Sandy in the section “Other Agency Issuing Vacate Order.” Rent-regulated tenants may also request rent abatements for loss of heat or hot water.

The agency has not responded to repeated requests from The New York World for the number of applications it has received for rent reductions in Sandy’s wake.

For market-rate tenants with severely storm-damaged apartments, abandoning their lease may be the most appealing option. Under New York law, tenants are permitted to break their leases if their buildings are destroyed or made untenantable by the elements. Most standard-form leases include a provision that waives this section of the law, but in practice, say tenant lawyers, the state law prevails.

Tenant lawyer David Frazer said tenants looking to get out of their leases “should probably strike while the iron is hot, and while there’s a lot of sympathy for them.” He predicted that the more time passes, the less likely landlords will be to let tenants out of their leases without a legal fight.

“Landlords are making business decisions here,” he said.

Sjodin advised tenants not to give up.

“They should expect things to take a long time and possibly be frustrating at points, but even so, they do have rights and they should work to enforce them,” she said.

Additional reporting by Gregory Barber.

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