Complex rent laws bar 1/3 of apartments from rent increases

June 7, 2012

No Eviction After Renter Didn’t Pay for 9 Years


The state’s highest court ruled on Thursday that a Brooklyn loft tenant who has not paid rent since 2003 could not be evicted because the landlord had not brought the building up to residential standards.

The ruling by the State Court of Appeals could affect tenants in some buildings covered by the 1982 Loft Law, which has allowed hundreds of former manufacturing or commercial buildings to be rented to tenants as long as the landlords make necessary changes, namely in fire protection and other safety measures, to bring them up to residential building codes.

The tenant, Margaret Maugenest, has lived and worked as an artist in her Gowanus loft at 280 Nevins Street since 1984. According to her lawyer, Margaret B. Sandercock, Ms. Maugenest began withholding rent in 2003 because of maintenance, fire and safety issues. That rent, Ms. Sandercock said, was under $600 per month.

In 2008, the building owner, Chazon L.L.C., sued to evict Ms. Maugenest for nonpayment, and two lower courts ruled in Chazon’s favor. But on Thursday, the appeals court said that because Chazon had missed deadlines for bringing the building up to residential code, and did not receive an extension from the city’s Loft Board, state law prohibited it from evicting tenants, even for nonpayment.

“In the absence of compliance, the law’s command is quite clear,” said the decision, written by Judge Robert S. Smith.

Thirty years after the passage of the law, about 300 buildings, almost one-third of the total number under the Loft Board’s purview at the time, have still not managed to complete the process and receive residential certificates of occupancy.

“Certificate of occupancy work is not just about really nice amenities that make the tenants happier,” Ms. Sandercock said. “It’s fire and safety.”

It was unclear Thursday night how many of the about 300 buildings had not received deadline extensions and thus could face the same legal difficulty that Ms. Maugenest’s landlord has.

The Loft Board can grant extensions for circumstances beyond a landlord’s control, but in 2006, the court said, the board rejected the landlord’s claim that it deserved an extension.

A lawyer for Chazon did not return phone calls Thursday evening.

Though Ms. Maugenest has not paid rent for nine years, she has not adopted the habits of someone who lives rent-free either, her lawyer said. Instead, she has put aside her rent money every month and saved it, just in case a court demanded that she pay. She may have just found herself with an extra $60,000.

Leave a Reply