LOWER EAST SIDE — You might be sitting on a gold mine and not even know it.
Each year, tens of thousands of tenants across the city find they don't have to search far and wide for the city dwellers' holy grail — a rent-stabilized apartment. They already live in one, many discover, and all they had to do was fight for it to be returned to state protection, advocates say.
In the past two years, more than 28,000 apartments in the state — nearly all of them in New York City — have been restored to the state's rent-stabilization program after being illegally removed by landlords, according to the state's Tenant Protection Unit.
Some landlords bank on young professionals moving into illegally deregulated apartments and accepting the higher rent without first asking if the unit ought to be rent-stabilized. But it's a tenant's right to fight to have their apartment put back on the rolls, advocates say.
"You could wind up with a low-rent apartment as well as the right to a renewable lease," said Michael Grinthal, a supervising attorney with MFY Legal Services, which represents low-income tenants in housing cases.
"In New York, that is like the ability to fly or shoot laser beams from your eyes."
Grinthal not only advocates for other tenants to restore rent-stabilized apartments to their proper status. He said he also successfully fought for his own apartment to reenter the program in 2007, when he confronted his landlord, who "voluntarily acknowledged [that the apartment should be rent-stabilized] and agreed to re-regulate the apartment."
In the city's hot housing market, landlords have ample incentive to convert rent-stabilized apartments to market rate. That can happen either through legal means — which can include making substantial improvements to the unit or building after an existing tenant moves out — or through illegal means, by simply raising the rent and not telling tenants that the apartment is rent-stabilized, experts said.
"[Landlords'] interest is that they need a return on their investment," said Frank Ricci, a spokesman for the Rent Stabilized Association, which represents landlords.
Ricci said he believes that in 99 percent of cases, landlords follow the law when they deregulate rent-stabilized apartments, but he acknowledged that large corporations are more aggressive about removing apartments from rent-stabilization than mom-and-pop landlords.
In the past two years, the state has ordered landlords who illegally deregulated their apartments to repay tenants more than $220,000, officials said.
Rent-stabilized apartments are highly prized because they are often hundreds, even thousands, of dollars below market rate, and annual rent increases are set by the city at about 4 percent each year. The state program also protects tenants by giving them the right to renew their lease.
Here are the steps to take if you believe your apartment should be rent-stabilized:
1. Get your rent history from the state.
The first step is free and easy. To get the rent history of your apartment dating back to 1984, call the Division of Housing and Community Renewal's hotline at (718) 739-6400 and the agency will mail it directly to you. You can also get your rent history by taking a copy of your lease to any of DHCR's offices in the five boroughs. Staff members there can answer any initial questions.
The general rule is that any apartment in a building that was built before 1974 and has six or more units would have been rent-stabilized at some point, advocates said. If the apartment is no longer rent-stabilized, the question then becomes whether it was deregulated illegally.
Of the dozens of cases the Cooper Square Committee, which represents tenants, sees every year, lead organizer Brandon Kielbasa estimates that 25 percent have a strong case for being returned to rent stabilization.
2. Get help from a housing lawyer or tenant advocate.
When looking at your rent history, check for red flags including a major jump in rent from one year to the next, years where information is missing, or notes that show several years of information was filed retroactively, according to Jason Chan, from the Lower East Side-based CAAAV.
The state's DHCR relies on the honesty of landlords when they file rent history information, Chan said, which means the onus is on tenants to uncover irregularities and report them to DHCR.
"Legally you can actually fight, but the burden is on the tenants to do that," Chan said.
Tenant organizations that can help include Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV), Cooper Square Committee, Metropolitan Council on Housing, Housing Conservation Coordinators and Asian Americans for Equality.
3. Weigh pros and cons of next steps.
If an advocate or lawyer looks at your rent history and believes you're being charged too much rent, you have two options:
First, you can file a formal rent overcharge complaint with DHCR, which will investigate the claim. This route is free, but can take months or even years, according to Grinthal. The wait can be problematic if your landlord is treating you as a market-rate tenant, because the rights of market-rate tenants are limited, and you won't be protected from eviction, he said.
If you're going to file a complaint with DHCR, it's best to do it as soon as possible, because there is a four-year statute of limitations, starting at the time the rent overcharge begins. There are some exceptions to that rule, though, advocates said.
Grinthal said the second option is more expensive but faster: You can take the landlord to court. Many tenants need to pay to hire a lawyer, but some free legal help is available for low-income New Yorkers through nonprofits including MFY.
4. Organize with other tenants in your building.
One person can play an important role in keeping an entire building — and even a whole neighborhood — affordable, advocates said.
If you do research and discover that your apartment should be rent-stabilized, advocates suggest that you reach out to other tenants in the building to see if they're aware of the situation. Tenant advocates said they believe that if enough new tenants ask about their apartments' rent-stabilization status, there will be less incentive for landlords to boot out long-term rent-stabilized tenants in the first place.
"The important thing is we are all in this together," Kielbasa said.