Revelations in the spring from investigative nonprofit ProPublica were as unexpected as they were troubling: In New York City’s “rent-stabilized” apartments, rents weren’t so stable, after all.
Despite a 1974 law enacted to provide rent control to some New York City tenants — legislation aimed at preventing steep increases or arbitrary evictions — a loophole passed by state lawmakers in 2003 actually allows landlords to do the very things the original legislation tried to prevent.
The result: Tenants have seen increases in their monthly rent — sometimes by hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.
The problem, ProPublica found, stemmed from wonky laws — and regulatory agencies that couldn’t quite keep up with monitoring landlords. In theory, nearly one million apartments in New York City are supposed to be rent-stabilized and regulated by the Rent Guidelines Board, which sets allowable increases. But thanks to the loophole, landlords were able to skirt those allowances by offering tenants “preferential rent” — a price lower than the “legal rent” listed on the lease.
Preferential rent can be rescinded when the lease is renewed, ProPublica found, and landlords can suddenly charge their “legal” rent, which many landlords set themselves, because of little oversight. That can result in hundreds or thousands of dollars extra each month — and can lead to eviction and gentrification.
It made me think: What rights do renters here have?
So last week, I contacted two lawyers who handle landlord-tenant disputes to discuss renters’ rights. Their answers are about non-public housing only.
According to lawyer Gregory Littman, of Freundlich & Littman in Philadelphia, “Pennsylvania does not have any rent-control laws, period.” Instead, he said, prices are entirely governed by a tenant’s lease. And although some may include clauses about how much rent can be increased, most agreements, he said, have to be renegotiated annually.
“Technically, a landlord could increase the rent by 100 percent if they wanted to,” Littman said. “Nothing in Pennsylvania stops that.”
However, to raise rent on a typical one-year lease — or change the terms in any way — landlords must give tenants at least 30 days’ notice before the lease expires, Littman said. And, according to the Tenant Union Representative Network, based in Philadelphia, if a landlord does not give sufficient notice, the rent increase is illegal.
Like Pennsylvania, New Jersey has no state law governing rent increases. But cities and townships can adopt ordinances regulating rent themselves. According to some estimates, nearly 100 municipalities have taken this step, including Newark. But there have been indications that some towns have begun scaling their provisions back.
In addition to local ordinances, New Jersey landlords also cannot raise rents by an “unreasonable” rate, said lawyer Travis Richards, based in Mount Holly with Weishoff & Richards.
“While there is no steadfast number, and there are a number of considerations that can be taken in, about 8 to 10 percent is about the maximum that a landlord can get away with,” he said. New Jersey landlords also must give tenants one calendar month’s notice that their rent will increase at the end of a lease.
A landlord in Pennsylvania is not allowed to charge more than two months’ rent for a security deposit upon move-in. And when the lease expires, the landlord must return the deposit within 30 days. Deductions may be taken for damage if an itemized list is presented. However, Littman said, the law is clear: If a tenant does not receive the deposit back within 30 days, a landlord must pay the tenant double the original deposit.
According to Richards, New Jersey’s laws are similar. A landlord is not allowed to charge more than 1 ½ month’s rent for a deposit. And if a tenant does not receive the deposit and itemized list within 30 days after moving out, a New Jersey landlord also must pay out double.
Pennsylvania’s Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951 says a tenant may be evicted for failure to pay rent or for violating the lease.
The law is explicit, though: A landlord cannot simply change the locks or kick a tenant out. Instead, the landlord must first give the tenant a “Notice to Quit,” specifying which terms were violated and which date the tenant is expected to move out.
In the case of nonpayment, the tenant either can pay what is owed or move out by the specified date. For other violations, the tenant must move.
If the eviction notice is ignored, a landlord can begin eviction proceedings in court.
In New Jersey, “A landlord can’t simply evict a person at the end of the lease because they don’t like them anymore,” Richards said. Instead, as in Pennsylvania, eviction is allowed in New Jersey when a tenant fails to pay rent or violates a lease. And a landlord can’t simply go in and change the locks, either. Doing so in New Jersey is a “disorderly persons offense,” Richards said, and a landlord can be charged for such behavior.
Instead, a “Notice to Quit” must be served and, if it is ignored, a renter can be taken to court. Then the tenant can be removed only if a Superior Court judge orders it.