Coney Island Tenants Approach Rent Due Date

Staff handle post-hurricane issues. Viola Gad | The Bridge

Standing amidst hundreds of Coney Island residents whose lives were upended by Hurricane Sandy, Amelia Riviera was worried about how she would purchase Christmas gifts this year.

Riviera was waiting in line at the Coney Island Restoration Center to ask FEMA for financial help in replacing a waterlogged mattress. She said had not expected to learn that her public housing complex in Brighton Beach would ask her to pay rent as normal at the end of the month, a sum for which she would be partially refunded in January.

“Why not in December?” she said of the refund. “I don’t know how I’m going to buy Christmas presents.”

At the Coney Island center last week, public housing residents reacted bitterly to the news that the New York City Housing Authority will charge them rent this month – a choice that some lawyers call at best unethical and at worst illegal.

Public housing tenants will still be asked to fork over rent checks for the month of November, according to an announcement posted on the agency’s website. That includes residents who evacuated flooded buildings at the start of the month or have been struggling for weeks to get by in apartments without heat, water, or electricity,

In January, the Housing Authority will issue these residents a credit for the days during which their homes were uninhabitable, the announcement said.

There is little debate amongst lawyers that renters whose homes became essentially uninhabitable after losing heat or electricity, or after rampant mold bred on damp walls or the plumbing malfunctioned, are legally exempt from paying rent. In landlord-tenant law, under the Warranty of Habitability, “tenants have the right to a livable, safe and sanitary apartment.” In the event of a breach of the warranty – which could include “a failure to provide heat or hot water on a regular basis or the failure to rid an apartment of an insect infestation” – a tenant is entitled to appeal for a rent reduction.

But what is less clear is how the Housing Authority is obligated to handle the issue of rent abatement, as there is little precedent by which to determine how long the agency can take to issue mass rent credits.

Indeed, there is no law that explicitly stipulates a timetable for the city to give such rent credits, according to Sam Himmelstein, an attorney at McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph, a city law firm that specializes in defending local tenants.

“It’s probably not illegal for them [the authority] to do it in January,” he said, adding that waiting until January is likely “easier” for city if it is choosing to evaluate each resident on a case by case basis. The Housing Authority has not released details on how it will determine the amounts of the rent credits.

Still, some lawyers have called the authority’s decision to pay the refunds in January at the very least ethically troubling, noting that renters are being asked to pay for weeks lived in or spent away from cold, rank apartments.

“To issue a credit in January misses the point here,” said Lucy Garrett, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, whose lawyers have been extensively involved in providing advice to New Yorkers coping with the thorny legal issues cropping up in the hurricane’s aftermath.

Given that many tenants are still reeling from a disaster that has forced them to dole out substantial portions of their incomes to replace lost or damaged belongings, asking them to pay November rent is “insensitive” to their difficult situation, he said.

“They cannot pay rent and also be expected to cover these other costs right now,” said Garrett. “It’s not very useful to them to be talking about a rent credit in January.”

The Housing Authority said that it had “nothing to add” beyond the announcement of the refund plan on its website.

One tenant, Gloria Nivens, said that she could not afford the roughly $600 in rent she owes to Seaside Gardens, a Coney Island public housing project, at the end of the month.

Nivens, who recently returned to Seaside Gardens after two weeks of waiting at her sister’s home for heat and electricity to be restored, lost most of her stored food when the power went off in her building, she said. Her eating expenses have left her short on rent money, she said, as free food handouts have not been enough to get by on.

“I don’t have anything in my fridge right now – not a thing,” she said.

She did not know how she would pull together the rent money and was waiting in line to ask FEMA for help.

“I can’t do anything except wait,” she said.

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