Finding an apartment in New York City is usually just half the battle — being a tenant can come with just as much uncertainty. Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado speaks with Dennis Donnelly, a supervising attorney at Communities Resist, a nonprofit housing legal services provider, who answers common questions tenants may have after they find an apartment. 

Dennis Donnelly. Photo: Lina Lee

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Epicenter-NYC: What things should tenants know before moving into an apartment?

Donnelly: There aren’t many rights for tenants in the process of finding a new place to live. There are a lot of rules about how landlords aren’t supposed to discriminate against prospective tenants, but in practice, landlords have a lot of power to say no without giving any good reason.

Before moving in, it never hurts to do some research. I recommend looking up the two city websites with the most information about any residential address in the city. Those websites are by the Housing Preservation Department (HPD) or the Department of Buildings (DOB). JustFix is a nonprofit that loads information from both websites for any address. It tells you whether the past neighbors in your building have already complained about problems you may want to know about before moving in. There is also a bed bug registry on the HPD website that includes information about whether there have been treatments for bedbugs in the building over specific periods. You can get a lot of information about the conditions of the building through these kinds of websites. 

Epicenter-NYC: What is one right every tenant should know about?

Donnelly: An essential right that the tenants often need to learn about or feel confident enough in asking is the right for the landlord to make repairs and provide essential services like heat and hot water. We don’t just pay rent for the benefit of a place to live, we pay rent for a place to live with certain basic conditions and services guaranteed by New York State law. If there is a leak on your ceiling or the paint has been chipped and cracked over the years — you have the right to ask the landlord to fix that. The law doesn’t cover every possible upgrade we all want, but landlords can’t let your apartment fall apart around you. 

Epicenter-NYC: When it comes to repairs and maintenance, when should you go to housing court if these issues aren’t fixed?

Donnelly: I recommend that tenants start by asking their landlord, super, or management company. If you don’t have any luck with that, or they’re just ignoring you, the next step is to call 311. The city will send out an inspector who confirms that the problem exists, which puts more pressure on the landlord to do something. Often, things like that are enough for some landlords, but some might still ignore what the city tells them to do. At that point, it might be worth taking the landlord to court for repairs, but I think it’s good to resolve it on your own and then through the city before you go to court.

Talk to your neighbors. Everyone in New York can talk to their neighbors and form a tenant association. Landlords are prevented by law from retaliating against them. A landlord may respond differently when they know that several tenants are collectively unhappy and making complaints together instead of one tenant acting independently.

Knowing your rights as a tenant can go a long way. 

Epicenter-NYC: What kinds of repairs should landlords fix, could it be something as small as repainting a wall?

Donnelly: A law that is rarely followed in New York says landlords in an apartment building with three or more units are supposed to repaint the walls every three years. This doesn’t happen frequently, especially if it’s a good paint job, but it’s important to know that you can request that the landlord repaint walls that haven’t been [painted] in a long time. You can also ask for chip cracks in walls and ceilings, leaks or mold to be repaired, and pest control for cockroaches or mice. You can also request to fix any issues with appliances that the landlord provided and are no longer working the way they should. It can be hard to replace an entire appliance, and if there is a way to fix it, the landlord can legally do that instead of replacing it. Landlords must respond to a number of different issues. 

Epicenter-NYC: What should a tenant do when they get an eviction notice?

Donnelly:  When someone gets an eviction notice, I recommend contacting any community groups specific to their neighborhood — they are always a great resource to turn to first. You can also contact 311, especially if you are a tenant being taken to court. By calling 311, you can learn about free legal service providers like ourselves. I recommend two websites, the Metropolitan Council on Housing and Housing Court Answers. Both have great “frequently answered questions” and “know your rights” pages. 

Aside from who to call first, my biggest advice for tenants facing a potential eviction is not to give up immediately. While there are some cases where there isn’t much a tenant can do to stop the eviction, there’s usually more time and flexibility for others, especially in unpaid rent cases. It’s always worth going to court and taking the time to defend yourself against those cases. One way to get evicted very quickly is if you don’t go to court to defend yourself. New York law says tenants have the right to go to court and be connected with a free legal service provider like myself. Going to court can also help a tenant contact the city to see if there might be help for paying back rent. Especially if you lived in a rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartment and you have the expectation of being able to stay there for a long time — it’s worth defending that. It might be a hopeless case, but it’s better to find out after making an effort rather than just seeing the initial set of eviction papers and giving up.

Epicenter-NYC: What is a rent-stabilized unit?

Donnelly: It’s always worth double checking if your apartment is rent stabilized. If it is a building that has six or more apartments and was built before 1972, it was rent stabilized. You can then request a rent history from the division of Housing and Community Renewal. The rent history lists every rent-stabilized tenant who lived in the said apartment from 1982 to the present. Sometimes a tenant should be rent-stabilized, but the landlord doesn’t give them that kind of lease. So it’s worth double-checking, especially if you live in one of those bigger buildings. 

Epicenter-NYC: How do you know when a landlord has the right to raise your rent?

Donnelly: There are many rent-controlled/rent-stabilized apartments in New York City. For those apartments, rent increases are limited. The rent guidelines board sets a percentage of how much your rent can be increased whenever you renew your lease. If you live in one of those apartments, you should be given a lease renewal every year or every two years, and your rent will only increase a certain percentage. 

For tenants in market-rate apartments that don’t have rent control or rent stabilization, there isn’t a lot of legal regulation about how much the landlord can raise the rent in those apartments. The landlord is not allowed to raise your rent in the middle of your lease, but when it is up, they can charge however much additional rent they think they can get away with. There is often some flexibility and you can try to negotiate with your landlord, however, some are not always interested in doing that. If you have been living in an apartment for two or more years, the landlord must give you a 90-day notice before they can raise the rent if it’s over a 5% increase.

Epicenter-NYC: Is there help for tenants who can’t pay rent?

Donnelly: There are several resources for people who fall behind on rent and those who need help paying rent. Tenants going through difficult times, like losing a job or having a health emergency, can use the One Shot Deal program administered by the New York City Human Resources Association (HRA). As long as the tenant has income to pay rent in the future, the program will pay a substantial amount of rent arrears to ensure the tenant does not get evicted. These come in the form of a long-term no interest loan that the tenant has a long time to pay back or sometimes it’s a grant of money — either way, it’s a huge lifeline for tenants facing eviction. 

The Family and Homeless Eviction Prevention Service (FHEPS) program also exists. The program provides a subsidy for up to three years. It can help a tenant with past rent but also future payments. Eligible tenants are those facing eviction or those who already have a household member in the shelter system. There is also the Section 8 Voucher Program, however, there is an extensive backlog of people waiting to be approved. Those who apply now are being placed in a lottery to maybe get a voucher years down the road. Some private groups and nonprofits, notably, Catholic Charities, can provide limited rent assistance.

Epicenter-NYC: What is a common mistake a renter might make?

Donnelly: Tenants sometimes don’t know enough about their rights and may not make the best informed decision. For example, New York City always allows tenants to sublease their apartments to someone else. Sometimes people need to move for all sorts of reasons and they have time left on their lease. They might look at their lease and realize that the landlord doesn’t want them to sublet the apartment — that is not allowed under New York state law. Tenants have the right to propose a qualified subletter to take over the remainder of the lease. That is one of the safest ways to move out before your lease ends. The landlord can’t say no for no good reason, they have to give a tenant a specific reason why the proposed subletter cannot move in. 

Epicenter-NYC: What things should a tenant know as they move out?

Donnelly: I recommend that tenants request an inspection with their landlord. There were some notable changes to the law about security deposits for tenants in 2019. If a tenant requests an inspection, the landlord is legally required to do that with the tenant and identify reasons why they may keep a part of a tenant’s security deposit. The law also says that landlords have 14 days after you move out to give you an itemized list of why they keep parts of your security deposit. If they fail to do so, the tenant can win a small claims court case and it is even easier to do if you request a walk-through with the landlord before you move out. If you aren’t able to do an inspection, it never hurts to keep pictures of what things look like. That way, you can attempt to dispute any issue with a security deposit later. The law also states the landlord can’t keep your security deposit for “ordinary wear and tear.” If paint gets chipped over time, or you hang a few things on your wall, those are not valid reasons to keep your security deposit.

Epicenter-NYC: Are there laws that tenants may not know about but should?

Donnelly: In New York, you can’t be forced to leave your home unless you voluntarily leave or are evicted through a court proceeding. The warrant of eviction that a marshall posts on your door can only happen at the end of a court case. Landlords frequently demand that tenants move out by a certain date, for example, when the lease is up. While you might owe an additional month of rent if you stay beyond your lease, if you were negotiating something out and the landlord gives you a date to move out, it’s worth double checking with a tenant lawyer to see what stage your case is at, and whether you need to move out.

We frequently see tenants who evicted themselves before the court was at the point where they would have evicted them. New York also takes it very seriously when a landlord changes locks or kicks you out of your apartment without going to court. This can be considered a felony, and the tenant can file a “legal lockout,” where an evicted tenant, without going to court, can be put back into their apartment immediately. There is a specific process that landlords have to follow to evict you or force you to leave and you must make sure what your rights are and what stage of the process you are in before moving out or giving up after an eviction notice. 

Epicenter-NYC: What kind of help can Communities Resist provide for tenants in need?Donnelly: We represent tenants and tenant associations in eviction cases in court. We also provide brief advice via a phone call or a series of phone calls to tenants in New York City who are dealing with landlord-tenant issues or need advice on their rights. People looking for advice about their situations can contact us via our office number (646) 974-8761 or email

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