Do you have a question about New York's complex and sometimes terrifying housing laws? Native New Yorker columnist Jake Dobkin has been receiving a lot of these questions lately, and he's decided to kick some of them over to his dad, longtime NYC tenants' lawyer and housing activist Steve Dobkin. If you have a question, email us and we will pick the most interesting ones to pass along to him.

Our first question comes from a tenant who can't get his deposit check back.

Dear Counselor Dobkin,

I moved into a Brooklyn apartment owned by a high-up official in the FDNY. He "acted" as the "landlord" but in reality did nothing but yell at us for going on the roof. He wanted cash for rent, which is common, so I hear, but never sounded right, and I asked repeatedly if I could pay in check, which he declined. I paid $750 in deposit when I moved in, payable to the previous person's room I was taking. I was not on the lease, but the person who was soon got into grad school after being on the lease for 6 years, and was grandfathered in by the previous tenants, who had been there for 4 years, meaning the landlord only had $1,500 in lease money dating back 10 years, to re-pay us. He says the place has been damaged and we left too much furniture there, which costs $1000 to remove, so he will be giving us $500 to split between the 3 of us, 2 of us paid $750 and the other $650.

How much of this legal, and do I have any leg to stand on in getting my $750 back? How could I do that?


-Goodbye Brooklyn

It’s difficult to follow the twists and turns of this picaresque story, so I’ll ignore the confusing facts and address a few of the issues that spring to mind.

If a landlord insists on cash, he is required by law to provide a tenant with a written receipt. If the tenancy has ended and the tenants have vacated on or before the termination date, and surrendered possession by turning over the keys, they are entitled to a return of their security deposit if all rent due to the landlord has been paid, and the place has been left in undamaged condition, reasonable wear and tear excepted.

If the building contains six apartments or more, the landlord was supposed to deposit the rent in an interest-bearing segregated account, and either return the bulk of the interest to the tenant each year, or provide a statement of accrued interest.

If a landlord fails to return a tenant’s security deposit, plus accrued interest, the tenant can sue for the amount, in small claims court. It helps if you photographed the apartment and/or you have witnesses to the undamaged condition.

The opinion herein does not constitute legal advice, which may only be given in the context of a lawyer-client relationship.