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Tenants Rights Tips in New York City – an Interview with Jay Dankberg

01st November 2012
By sashalevin in Real Estate Law
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While much of the country is still reeling from the housing crisis, in other parts, especially in major cities like New York and San Francisco, the housing market remains extremely tight. This high demand for housing creates competition, and wherever there’s competition there’s greed. That’s where attorneys who specialize in housing disputes come in.

Jay Dankberg is a retired New York City housing court and civil court judge and was also an acting New York State Supreme Court judge. Today, his practice focuses primarily on issues of elder care and housing issues.

Can you give a brief summary of your experience?

Jay Dankberg: I was a housing judge for six and a half years. I was a civil court judge for ten years, and during that time I was appointed as an acting Supreme Court justice.

What kind of housing cases are you working on now?

JD: I have one situation – involving a very elegant building, a woman’s apartment which is not being taken care of and hasn’t been for many years. It has fairly high rent, about $2,000, but it’s a regulated rent. The place is a mess. There are leaks coming from upstairs, her water is filthy. Her two toilets don’t flush right.

There are also drapes on the floor which had been there for months and are filthy. I asked why this hasn’t been cleaned up, and she said “no, the landlord was there. They were doing work on the windows and they threw the curtains on the floor. Let them pay to clean it up.”

Meanwhile, the landlord is claiming that she took a toothbrush and threw it down the bathroom sink, causing it to block up. It is however physically impossible to have put a toothbrush into the space where the landlord says she put it. The buzzer for her door doesn’t work and hers is the only one in the building that doesn’t work. It’s as I say, a mess.

So I understand that in a case like that, you have to pay money into escrow for the rent and then you have to pay separately for things to get fixed. Is that the case?

JD: Often that’s true. There is a statute that says if the case has been on the calendar more than two times or more than 30 days, unless there is a claim of lack of personal jurisdiction, meaning that they claim that the parties in the case have not been properly served, then the amount of the rent must be deposited into the court.

The landlord’s law firm however never made that request. I think that they are waiting for the amount to pile up so she won’t be able to afford it.

I know the New York housing market is quite tight right now so I imagine there is quite an incentive for the landlord to try to drag it out as long as possible so that the landlord can have her evicted for failure to pay rent. Is that correct?

JD: Yes. This apartment is currently renting for around $2,000. If they get her out and if they remodel, I imagine they’d be able to rent it for around $5,000-$6,000.

What advice do you have for our readers if they have problems with landlords?

JD: File complaints. Keep detailed records. When you contact your landlord, be patient and follow up with written letters by certified mail. But you also need to pick your fights. There are violations which are serious and there are violations which are not so serious.

So would you say there are violations not worth fighting over?

JD: Well there are violations like where there are scratches on the walls for example. In theory, every apartment needs to be painted every three years and the paint has to be kept up in good condition.

How would you compare your experience being a judge and a lawyer?

JD: As Mel Brooks said, it’s a good job being the judge when you’re in charge and you’re responsible. It’s difficult when you have to listen to someone else say, “It’s five o’clock. I want to adjourn…”

Alex Levin is a writer for Seeger Weiss, a plaintiffs law firm specializing in consumer law.
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