You don’t need “Game of Thrones” to tell you this, but winter is indeed coming. And that means those hot showers are about to become that much more important to get you through the days. Whether you’re in New York City or San Francisco, a one-bedroom apartment in the heart of either city can easily cost over $3,000 a month. And when you’re paying an arm and a leg to rent your home, it’s that much more important that you get your money’s worth. Having hot water is a fundamental right due to renters by their landlords, so if your taps are running cold, it’s important to speak up. But if you’re going to confront your landlord, it’s important to be aware of tenants’ rights. So what do you do if a landlord isn’t providing the essentials, like hot water? What are your rights as a tenant under law?
Does Your Landlord Have to Provide Hot Water?
Tenants’ rights in New York City
In New York City, every landlord is required to provide adequate heat and hot water between Oct. 1 and May 31 (also known as the “Heat Season”), according to NYC 311. Hot water, however, should be provided 365 days a year and should be at least 120°. If you’re without either or both, you can report it to the City. Renters are also allowed to withhold rent for such a grievance, according to Brooklyn-based housing rights attorney Justin La Mort. But don’t make that your first plant of action. NYC 311 recommends first contacting your landlord, managing agent or super to resolve the issue (remember to keep track of all written correspondence). If it still goes unresolved within a reasonable amount of time, let the City intervene on your behalf, recommends NYC realtor Collin Bond.
“If a tenant does not have hot water they should call 311 to file a complaint. This will trigger an investigation by the HPD (Housing Preservation & Development). HPD will follow up with the owner or management company and the tenant to see if service has been restored.”
If hot water still isn’t restored, your landlord could be subject to some serious fines.
“The penalty for not providing hot water is $250 to $500 per day for each initial violation,” adds Bond, “and $500 to $1,000 for each subsequent violation at the same building during the same or next calendar year from the initial violation.”
If the situation forces you out of your apartment (because cold showers in 15° weather is not OK), you still shouldn’t try to withhold rent. If you incur expenses because of the situation (i.e. you’re displaced and have to go to a hotel, etc.) make sure to keep all receipts, pay your rent, and seek legal counsel. Taking your landlord to court isn’t the ideal situation, but it is your right if push comes to shove. To learn about all your rights as a tenant under law, visit the Metropolitan Council on Housing website.
Tenants’ rights in San Francisco
Like NYC, San Francisco law requires that a landlord provide hot water to their tenants, as apart of their responsibility to maintain “habitability” of their residences. Heat should be available and maintained at 68° between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. or 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Hot water should always be available and maintained at a temperature of 105° to 120°, according to SF311. If you’re without hot water in San Francisco, you can technically withhold rent. But just like in NYC, you should never resort to this first. Going on a rent strike could put you a at risk of an eviction for not paying.
“If you use this option, the landlord may fix the problem or attempt to evict you for nonpayment of rent and you will have to go to court and adequately prove the seriousness of the problem and the landlord’s failure to do anything about it,” says the San Francisco Tenants Union website.
Instead, report the issue to your landlord and document the correspondence. If your landlord doesn’t fix your hot water in a timely manner, you should contact the Department of Building Inspection. Expect the city to inspect within one business day. Continue documenting every correspondence, and ask for a copy of the report for your records. But be careful if you live in an illegal apartment. The DBI could shut down the apartment building altogether. That would lead to an automatic eviction.
If you can show the landlord knew of the issues and did not repair them in a timely manner, you can repair the damage yourself and deduct what you spent from your rent. But again, you risk an eviction notice based on nonpayment of rent, and you could end up in court. Therefore, it’s not advised to do this, and you may be better off pursuing legal action. Ultimately, it’s never a good idea to withhold rent until you’ve spoken to a lawyer. Organizations like the San Francisco Tenants Union, Housing Rights Committee of SF and SF311 are great resources for more information and counsel.
Tenant law in other cities
Don’t live in NYC or SF? Your landlord still has to provide you hot water. Find your city’s tenants’ rights or housing authority website to learn what the laws are. You have rights as a tenant under law to live in a habitable environment . That means your landlord must do their part to provide it.
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