Affordable Housing

The Insider's Guide to Rent Stabilized Apartments: Essential Knowledge for New York Renters

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Back in the 1990s, it seemed like every city resident worth his salt knew the ins and outs of rent-stabilization: how to find a regulated apartment, what protections you could expect, and when to know if a landlord was pulling something sketchy. These days, with fewer rent-stabilized apartments available and more newcomers making their way to New York, confusion over exactly what this complicated, sprawling program entails is rampant, even for tenants who have already snagged one of these coveted spots. 
Indeed, these rentals continue to be in high demand, and for good reason. They're often cheaper than comparable apartments, allowing people to live long-term in neighborhoods they otherwise couldn't afford. They also guarantee tenants all kinds of protections that elude market-rate renters, including relatively predictable and manageable rent increases and an automatic lease renewal every year or two (meaning that, except in rare circumstances, your landlord can't kick you out). And unlike other affordable housing in the city, they're not intended solely for low-income New Yorkers. 

**This story originally ran in January 2015.**

That said, if you want to find a rent-stabilized apartment—or hang onto one—it's useful to know enough about the program to ensure your rights are protected. We dug into the rules and spoke to experts to clear up—in plain language—some of the biggest rent-stabilization myths:


MYTH: It's impossible to find a rent-stabilized apartment now. 

It's not easy to find a rent-stabilized apartment, that's for sure. For one thing, tenants in stabilized apartments tend to hang onto them, meaning that they're seldom vacant, and landlords don't always advertise the stabilized status of their rentals. The city lost almost 153,000 rent-stabilized units between 1994 and 2012

But they are still out there. Stabilized units make up almost half of New York's rental housing stock, according to the de Blasio administration, which has made preserving and creating affordable housing a priority. Close to 1 million apartments fall under the program, housing nearly 2.5 million people, according to Katie Goldstein, executive director of Tenants and Neighbors, a tenant advocacy group. Additionally, a good number of developers are building affordable housing in exchange for tax breaks, meaning that some new construction rentals are stabilized, too. 

While there are some important exceptions, the rule of thumb is that just about any apartment in a building with six or more apartments constructed before July 1, 1974 is stabilized. (This is different from the even rarer rent control, which applies to buildings built before 1947 where tenants have been living since 1971.) 

MYTH: All rent-stabilized apartments are old and dilapidated. 

It’s true that most stabilized apartments are in older buildings, and landlords have been known to skimp on repairs for renters who aren’t paying market-rate, and even to sabotage their own buildings to force stabilized tenants out.

But new rent-stabilized apartments are being built, thanks to city and state tax breaks for developers who build affordable housing. In many cases, these affordable units in new developments go into the rent-stabilization program, even if the rents are over $2,700 a month. (Often, they are subject to income restrictions, too.)

Separately, hundreds of renovated buildings across the city are rent-stabilized because their owners received a J51 abatement, a tax break that landlords get for undertaking significant improvements to the building.Thanks to a far-reaching 2009 court decision involving a tenant at Stuy Town, tens of thousands of apartments in these buildings were retroactively stabilized.

However, in both cases, the apartments are destabilized when the tax abatements expire and there is a vacancy. 

Many of the apartments at Stuy Town are still stabilized (Photo credit: Marianne O'Leary)

MYTH: You can always tell from your lease that an apartment is rent-stabilized

Landlords are supposed to include a rent-stabilization rider in all new leases and renewals informing tenants of their legal rights. However, in practice, landlords sometimes keep tenants in the dark, and don't necessarily tell prospective renters about the status of the apartment when they're on the hunt. “People sometimes who are new to the city don’t ask if it’s a rent-stabilized apartment,” Goldstein says. “Or if they do they get misinformation from either brokers or the landlords about what their protections are in the unit.” In fact, you may want to avoid asking the landlord altogether, lest they mark you as a problem tenant and rent to someone else, says Sam Himmelstein, a tenants' rights lawyer with Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph.

Luckily, it’s possible to do some sleuthing:

MYTH: Rent-stabilized apartments are cheaper than market-rate apartments.

Affordable rent is undoubtedly a life-changing benefit for tenants, but rent-stabilized apartments aren’t always cheaper than their market-rate counterparts.

Landlords often charge a “preferential” rent that’s lower than what’s technically allowed because the legal rent would be too steep for the neighborhood. (This is particularly prevalent in less expensive parts of the city, especially in the outer boroughs.) By some estimates, 26 percent of rent-stabilized housing is at a preferential rent, Goldstein says. In other cases, the rent is not that far off market-rate. For example, rent-stabilized one-bedrooms at Bedford Park Manor in the Bronx are reportedly going for $1,275 a month, while similar market-rate places are $1,500 a month. 

And in fact, the cheap rent isn't the only major benefit of the program. An oft-overlooked but crucial feature of rent-stabilization is the security it gives tenants, since landlords are required to renew leases every year. That means that you can’t get booted from your apartment, even if the landlord sells or would otherwise want to kick you out. For Lynn, a stay-at-home mom who pays less than $2,000 a month for an East Village one-bedroom with her husband and two young kids, the feeling of stability is one of the main advantages, allowing her to budget every year. “Once you get a rent-stabilized building, you feel like this is for long term,” she says.

The city lost almost 153,000 rent-stabilized apartments since 1994. (Photo credit:


MYTH: When my rent hits $2,700, my apartment will be destabilized. 

Let's be clear about this: if you're a current rent-stabilized tenant and your rent surpasses $2,700 a month, your apartment will not automatically be destabilized. Your legal rent could go up to $10,000 a month, and it wouldn't matter: your apartment would continue to fall under rent-stabilization, and you would still  maintain all of the protections of the program.

Many New Yorkers are confused about this wrinkle of the rules, and it's not hard to see why. Apartments can be destabilized when the rent hits $2,700 a month—called high-rent vacancy deregulation—but only after the tenant moves out. The one exception to this is if you're a current tenant and you make more than $200,000 a year for two years in a row and your rent hits $2,700 a month. Then your apartment won’t be protected anymore, even if you stay put. 

MYTH: My rent is based on my income. 

Most affordable housing programs in the city—from Mitchell-Lama co-ops to 80/20 rentals to Section 8 vouchers—come with income restrictions for residents. Not so for rent-stabilization (with one big exception, below). Getting a rent-stabilized apartment has almost nothing to do with the amount of money you earn and everything to do with your luck unearthing one of these spots. (Although, of course, a landlord will still verify that you make enough to pay the rent.)

Here’s the exception: if you're a current tenant making more than $200,000 a year for two years in a row and the legal stabilized rent of your apartment surpasses $2,700 a month, the unit will be destabilized. (So yes, that stereotype of the wealthy heiress hanging onto an impossibly cheap apartment is also a fiction. More than a third of rent-stabilized tenants spend 50 percent or more of their income on rent, Goldstein says.)

But even if you make more than $200,000 a year, you can still sign a lease and move into a stabilized apartment.

On a related note, the rent you pay is not pegged to your salary or other needs-based factors. The biggest impact on the rent is how often the apartment has turned over in the past, as well as any renovations the landlord has undertaken. “It has everything to do with the apartment and nothing to do with the tenant,” says landlord Arik Lifshitz, president of DSA Management, which mostly owns rent-stabilized buildings.

This is because every time a tenant moves out, the landlord can hike the rent by roughly 20 percent, as well as raise the rent by a fraction of the cost of any upgrades. Even in a single building, you could have one long-time rent-stabilized tenant paying $800 a month, another paying a stabilized rent of $2,000 a month, and another paying market-rate. “In general, the longer you’ve been in occupancy, the lower your rent is going to be,” says Himmelstein. 

MYTH: My rent will only go up once a year. 

Annual rent increases are set by the Rent Guidelines Board, a city agency that meets every June to vote on hikes for one- and two-year leases. For the past two years, the board has approved a rent freeze for one-year leases, and a two-percent increase for two-year leases.

However, there are a few other ways your landlord can raise the rent year-round:

  • Improvements to your apartment: If a landlord installs a new appliance or otherwise spiffs up your place, they can pass on 1/40th or 1/60th of the cost (depending on whether the building has fewer than, or more than, 35 units, respectively) to you in the form of higher rent. For example, the East Village's Lynn got a new fridge and wound up paying $8 a month more. Keep in mind that a landlord must get your written permission to make these upgrades. (If the apartment is empty, no permission is needed.)
  • Capital upgrades to the building: If a landlord undertakes a major building repair, like installing a new boiler, they can also hike the rent, spreading the cost over seven years, and passing it on to the tenants.
  • Getting rid of a preferential rent: If you’re paying less than the apartment’s legal stabilized rent—say, if the legal rent is higher than the cost of renting in your neighborhood—a landlord can spike the rent to the legal rate the next time the lease is up. “People often don’t know if they’re preferential rent tenants until they get the lease renewal,” Goldstein says.

One of the biggest benefits of rent-stabilization is the automatic lease renewal. (Photo credit: Rental Realities)

MYTH: I can add my family members to the lease. 

The only person you can add to an existing rent-stabilized lease—so that they share in all the benefits and responsibilities of the apartment along with you—is a spouse. “Not a live-in lover, not a partner, not a domestic partner, just a spouse,” Himmelstein says.

However, if you leave the apartment, you can hand it over to a family member who’s been living with you for at least two years (or one year if you’re the family member is 62 or older, or disabled). That person can be a parent, child, grandparent, grandchild, sibling, or a person with whom you have a close financial relationship, such as a partner who shares your bank account.

MYTH: I vote and pay taxes at this address, so it's my primary residence. 

One of the main reasons landlords kick tenants out is by proving that their apartment is not their primary residence. And “primary residence” doesn’t just mean you get your ConEd bill at that address—it means that you actually live there for more than six months of the year. “You could have every piece of paper in the world listing that address as your address, but if you don’t spend more than half your time there … that’s what the judge is going to be concerned about,” Himmelstein says, though there are certain exceptions.

If a landlord suspects you live elsewhere, they can take you to court and get access to your bank statements, credit card records, flight records and more, all to convince a judge that you don’t actually live in the apartment, and leading to an eviction.

MYTH: I can charge my roommate whatever I want. 

While you can share your apartment with a roommate, you must split the rent evenly—in half for two people, in thirds for three people, and so on—even if that person has a bigger room or other perks. [Ed's note: A previously published version of this article said that charging your roommate extra would be grounds for eviction. In fact, you'd only get evicted if you were subletting the apartment, i.e. renting it out and not living there at the same time.]

MYTH: My landlord didn't renew my lease, so now I'm getting evicted. 

“People think when the lease expires they can be brought into court and evicted, and that’s just not the case,” Himmelstein explains. Ninety to 150 days before your lease expires, your landlord should offer you a renewal or, if there’s a valid reason not to renew (like they plan to move a family member into your apartment), a notice stating as much.

If you don’t get either, you’re still covered by all the protections of rent-stabilization and, in fact, your landlord can’t raise your rent until the lease is renewed (or hike it retroactively), so in some ways it’s a benefit to renters not to get an official lease renewal, Himmelstein says. That said, if you want the document, you can file a complaint to DHCR.


My exasperating, enlightening, ultimately successful search for rent-stabilized digs

Ask Sam: How do I find out if my apartment's supposed to be rent-stabilized--and my landlord owes me money? (sponsored)

How to find a rent-stabilized apartment in NYC

Landlord wants to buy you out? How to name your price--plus real-life examples from $15K to $1 million

Lessons from the $17 million buyout of a rent-stabilized apartment

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