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.
This question comes from a Bushwick man who has roaches coming out his ears and a landlord who isn't doing anything about it.
Dear Counselor Dobkin,
For the past few years I've lived in a fairly inexpensive (I'd not say cheap, no, certainly not cheap) apartment in Bushwick. When I moved in, the apartment had just had some renovations completed—floors replaced with hardwood, bathroom redone, repainted- cosmetic renovations really, but the kitchen cabinets and countertop were not replaced. I had no problems for the first few years—a bug here and there—but nothing unusual.
Now my issue is that my apartment has become infested with roaches over the past year. They're in the cabinets, coming out of the sinks and the tub drain, in the bedroom, crawling across the ceilings: everywhere, hundreds of roaches. Once a month an exterminator comes and sprays my apartment, but this has done nothing to stop the infestation (apparently some residents of my building don't let him spray their apartments). I've also bombed my own apartment, put out Borax, laid out roach traps, and used sprays. Nothing works.
Now I'm from the South, where a palmetto bug in your house is just par for the course, so a roach or two is no big deal, but this is to the point that I'm disgusted and no longer invite friends over. My apartment is clean and uncluttered; I sweep and mop and do the normal cleaning requirements at least once a week. I've scrubbed out my cabinets twice, I don't leave food out, or dishes in the sink for more than an hour (less than that now that this has been going on), but if I am cooking, and lay the spoon down I've been stirring the pot with to go and answer a phone call when I return there are 10 roaches feasting on said spoon.
I've complained to my landlord but have gotten nowhere. What the hell can I do? What DO I do? Should I just hire a pro to come in and nuke the crap out of my apartment and just spend the money on it? Do I call 311 and report the building? I know others on my floor are having similar issues and have not been able to get much of a result. Please advise.
Bugging out in Bushwick
A longtime housing attorney responds:
Dear Bugging Out in Bushwick,
Residential tenants in New York are protected by the warranty of habitability. As part of the lease agreement, the landlord is deemed to promise that the occupants will not be subjected to any conditions which would be dangerous, hazardous or detrimental to their life, health or safety. This includes bug infestation, even though you are more likely to be a threat to the lives, health and safety of the roaches inhabiting your apartment than they are to you.
The New York City Housing Maintenance Code requires an owner to “keep the premises free from rodents, and from infestations of other pests.” Before you deduct the costs of a Dr. Strangelove style roach nuke, be sure to thoroughly document the condition, with photos, video, and 10 or 12 captured samples in a small freezer bag. There’s nothing judges like better than tenants who bring dead insects to court. (Just kidding—leave the bag in the freezer, but promise the Judge that you’ll bring it to court if there’s a trial).
You’ll also need proof that you notified the landlord, (best by certified mail return receipt requested, and a second copy by certificate of mailing) and gave that greedy insensitive bastard an opportunity to correct the situation properly before you went to the extreme of spending his hard earned rent money on your own selfish concerns.
You can also file a Housing Part (“HP”) action in the Housing Part of the Civil Court and set up an inspection by the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (“HPD”) at the time you file. There’s a “pro-se” clerk who helps unrepresented tenants file these papers, and lawyers from HPD who will pressure the Landlord to consent to a court order, under risk of civil penalties and contempt, to exterminate properly. If you go to the trouble of doing this, include a list of all the other conditions in your apartment and the common areas that are in need of repair.
At the risk of sounding like a throwback to the 1960s, I strongly recommend getting together with other roach warriors in the building to form a Tenants' Association. Contact Met Council on Housing for advice. If you tackle this problem collectively, the Landlord is less likely to single you out for retaliation. Your plan for mass roach extermination to the contrary notwithstanding, there’s safety in numbers.
If you've got a housing question you'd like answered, just drop us a line here.
The opinion herein does not constitute legal advice, which may only be given in the context of a lawyer-client relationship.