Affordable Housing

The insider's guide to rent-stabilized apartments: Essential knowledge for New York renters

By Emily Myers | July 1, 2021 - 9:30AM 

Persistence is the key to finding a rent-stabilized apartment.

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A rent-stabilized apartment in New York City comes with several important protections for renters: Annual rent increases are generally only a percentage point or two and in most cases you are also entitled to automatic lease renewals every year or two. That’s why finding a rent-stabilized apartment can be a lifeline for renters who would otherwise struggle to afford to live here.

The rent-stabilization program is one of the city’s initiatives aimed at addressing affordability and in 2019, protections for tenants in rent-stabilized apartments were increased under the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, which made it more difficult for landlords to cycle affordable apartments out of the program. 

So how do you find one of these coveted apartments? Around one million of the city’s apartments are rent-stabilized, which is about 44 percent of NYC’s total rental stock. They are snapped up quickly and renters who find one tend to stay put, but you can still uncover one—if you know where to look.

If you want to land a rent-stabilized apartment or merely hang onto one, it's useful to know the ins and outs of the program and your rights when you secure one.


[Editor's note: A previous version of this article was published in September 2019, and has been updated with new information for July 2021.]


1. What makes an apartment rent-stabilized? 

It's not easy to score a rent-stabilized apartment but it’s also possible to stumble across one. Landlords don’t typically advertise the stabilized status of apartments and tenants in stabilized apartments usually hang onto them. 

The rent reforms ushered in a few years ago have put an end to “vacancy decontrol,” which allowed landlords to remove apartments from rent stabilization once tenants moved out and the rent exceeded a certain threshold. The measure is in place to protect New York City’s rent-stabilized inventory. 

Persistence is the key to finding a rent regulated apartment. While there are some important exceptions, the rule of thumb is that just about any apartment in a building with six or more apartments built before July 1st, 1974 and not “substantially rehabilitated” is stabilized. This is different from the even rarer rent-controlled apartment, which applies to buildings built before 1947 where tenants have been living there since 1971.

You can also find rent-stabilized apartments in newer buildings that received tax benefits in return for providing rent-stabilized apartments and generally, these buildings offer stabilized apartments while the tax benefits are in place. You can check online whether an address has received a J-51 or 421-a abatement, which is a sure sign a building has stabilized apartments.

However, not all apartments in these buildings are necessarily rent stabilized. Prior to the new rent laws, an apartment could have been deregulated if the rent reached a threshold of $2,774.76. In prior years this threshold was lower, originally $2,000, then rising to $2,500.  

You can look up addresses on the website of the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, as well as the aptly-named site Am I Rent Stabilized.

Pro Tip:

To rent an apartment in New York City, most landlords require you to earn an annual salary of at least 40 to 45 times the monthly rent. If you don't—or if you’re an international employed person, self-employed, non-employed with assets, retired, or an international student or US student—you’ll need to find a guarantor for your lease who earns at least 80 times the monthly rent and lives in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut.  Or you can turn to Insurent Lease Guaranty.  Accepted at more than 4,700 buildings across the city representing over 475,000 apartments, Insurent Lease Guaranty is a quick and easy way to get the apartment you want. Click here to learn more.

Aside from investigating the status of the building, you’ll want to make sure the rent for the individual apartment is, in fact, the legal rent. To find out, request a rent history from DHCR, which will show you every time the landlord has increased the rent and why. Keep in mind that there are myriad ways an unscrupulous landlord might try to illegally remove an apartment from rent stabilization, so you might need to do some digging.

Another change in the past few years is that it is now easier to challenge the status of your apartment—if you signed a market-rate lease but think your apartment should be stabilized, there’s a better chance of successfully proving the apartment was illegally deregulated. If that’s the case you may successfully  have your rent rolled back.  

Landlords are supposed to include a rent-stabilization rider in all new leases and renewals informing tenants of their legal rights. In practice, landlords don't always tell prospective renters about the status of the apartment. 

People who are new to the city often don’t know to ask if an apartment is rent stabilized. It’s not uncommon to get misinformation from either brokers or landlords about what their protections are in a particular apartment.

In fact, you may want to avoid asking the landlord about the status of the apartment altogether, says Sam Himmelstein, a tenants' rights lawyer with Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph (also a Brick Underground sponsor). It’s best to do some of the legwork in finding out whether an apartment is rent stabilized on your own. If you’re asking the landlord about rent stabilization, Himmelstein says it’s possible they may be concerned about your motives and if they can, might rent to someone else. 

2. How are rent-stabilized apartments maintained?

In the past, landlords raised the rent in return for building and apartment renovations to the point where apartments could be taken out of the program. This is now illegal but landlords say one unintended consequence of the 2019 law is that apartments will fall into disrepair. There are now caps on raising the rent for building and apartment upgrades and so they say they are less incentivized to remodel and renovate them. 

It is true that most stabilized apartments are in older buildings, and also that 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 evictions are more difficult under the new laws and have, of course, been complicated by the pandemic. Incentivized by tax breaks—specifically the 421-a exemption—developers continue to build affordable housing so it’s equally possible to get a rent-stabilized apartment in a brand new building. 

Separately, hundreds of buildings across the city are rent-stabilized because their owners received a J-51 property tax abatement, a tax break that landlords get for significantly rehabilitating or converting a building from another use. 

In a far-reaching 2009 court decision in which an appeals court found that the landlord of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village illegally raised rents and deregulated thousands of apartments after receiving a J-51 tax break, more than 3,000 apartments in these buildings were retroactively stabilized.

Keep in mind, though, that tax abatements do eventually expire—after anywhere from 10 to 35 years—at which point the apartments’ rent-stabilized status also expires. Unless, that is, the landlord hasn’t followed guidelines for alerting tenants about this—in which case, you are entitled to stay put and your apartment continues to be stabilized.

The Rent Guidelines Board has information on whether a building that receives a tax abatement will eventually lose coverage.

3. What are rents like? How much do they go up each 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. In 2020, the board froze rent increases due to the pandemic and this year, it approved a freeze for the first six months on one-year leases, and a 1.5 percent increase for the second six months. 

It’s possible your rent could also rise as a result of Major Capital Improvements (MCI)—upgrades to the building like replacement elevators, fire escapes, and water tanks. Before the rent reforms, tenants might have expected to see a 6 percent annual rent increase to pay for renovations, now it is capped at 2 percent per year. A landlord must apply to DHCR to have an MCI approved and a tenant is also allowed to challenge or fight an MCI application.

There are two kinds of Individual Apartment Improvements (IAI): one where work is carried out when a unit becomes vacant and another where work can be done while you are residing there. For this second type of IAI, landlords must get your written permission to make the upgrades. 

The cost to a tenant for improvements to a specific apartment is capped at $15,000 over a 15-year period, if the work is carried out. 

Affordable rent is undoubtedly a life-changing benefit for tenants, but rent-stabilized apartments aren’t always cheaper than their market-rate counterparts. Landlords sometimes charge a “preferential rent” that is 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.

In the past, a preferential rent might be offered to a tenant, only for the rent to be hiked when the initial lease expired. The rent law reforms changed that—making sure that tenants who are offered this type of rental situation will keep the preferential rent for the entire tenancy. 

Pro Tip:

Is your rent-stabilized apartment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—or more—in a buyout?  New York City real estate attorney and buyout expert Steven Wagner of Wagner Berkow & Brandt will analyze your case, tell you how much your landlord is likely to pay, and apply the maximum legal and tactical pressure to get you the biggest offer (often, more than your neighbors).  Bonus: He typically works on a contingency fee—meaning you are billed only if and when you receive your buyout. For a complimentary 15 minute telephone consultation with Steven Wagner, click here or call 646-780-7272.   

4. Rent stabilization is not based on income

Most affordable housing programs in the city—such as Mitchell-Lama co-ops, 80/20 rentals, and Section 8 vouchers—come with income restrictions for residents. This is not the case for rent stabilization. Getting a rent-stabilized apartment has nothing to do with the amount of money you earn and everything to do with your luck unearthing one of these places. Although, of course, a landlord will still want to verify that you make enough to pay the rent.

In the past, a tenant who earned more than $200,000 a year for two years consecutively and whose rent was above the $2,744.76 or earlier thresholds was vulnerable to having their apartment deregulated but the rent reforms put an end to that. 

“It has everything to do with the apartment and nothing to do with the tenant,” says landlord Arik Lifshitz, CEO of DSA Property Group, a firm that rents out a mix of rent-stabilized and market-rate apartments.

“In general, the longer you’ve been in occupancy, the lower your rent is going to be,” Himmelstein says. 

5. What are the benefits of a rent-stabilized lease?  

A crucial feature of rent-stabilization is the security it gives tenants, since landlords are required to renew leases every year and there are only certain circumstances where you can be booted from your apartment. 

For Lynn, a stay-at-home mom who pays less than $2,000 a month for an East Village one bedroom where she lives with her husband and two young kids, the feeling of stability is one of the main advantages, allowing her to plan her budget every year.

“Once you get a rent-stabilized apartment, you feel like this is for the long term,” she says.

“People think when the lease expires they can be brought into court and evicted, and that’s just not the case,” Himmelstein says. From 90 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 a plan to move a family member of the owner into your apartment or if the landlord claims the apartment is not your primary residence—they need to provide you with a notice of non-renewal.

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.

There are instances in which a landlord can evict you. If you’re breaking the terms of your lease—like not using your apartment as a primary residence, for instance, or keeping a pet when it’s against the rules, or illegally subletting on Airbnb—you’re making yourself vulnerable to getting kicked out. In most cases, though, a housing court judge will give you a chance to “cure” (that is, fix the problem) before ruling to evict you. If a court determines that an apartment is not your primary residence however, you won’t be given the chance to fix it.

The rent reforms have made it more difficult for you to be evicted even if the landlord wants to use the apartment for their own family members. In the past, a landlord could recover as many apartments as they liked for owner use. Now they are limited to one apartment per building and must prove an immediate and compelling necessity. “That is a much harder burden to meet,” Himmelstein says. 

In addition, anyone who has been renting for 15 years or more would have to be relocated to a superior or equivalent rent-stabilized apartment close by and rent reforms allow tenants to sue for fraud if they give up the apartment and the landlord’s family member doesn’t occupy the apartment. 

You may have to leave if the landlord plans to demolish the building—but that might not be entirely bad news, some stabilized tenants have negotiated lucrative buyouts in such situations. 

6. You can be evicted if it is not your 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 Con Ed 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, he 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 evict you. 

“Landlords generally don’t have the financial incentive to pursue these cases,” Himmelstein says. “Because even if they recover the apartment they cannot deregulate it and cannot raise the rent more than $89 per month for the next tenant. The exception is apartments located in co-ops or condos where even after the new law, the apartment would be immediately de-regulated upon a vacancy.”

7. You should not overcharge your roommates 

While you can share your apartment with a roommate, you must split the rent evenly—half for two people, in thirds for three people, and so on—even if that person has a bigger room or other perks.

Rent-stabilized tenants must charge roommates by evenly dividing the total rent by the number of tenants. However, charging your roommate extra is not grounds for eviction. You'd only get evicted if you were subletting the apartment, i.e. renting it out and not living there at the same time.

8. Who can you add to the lease? Who can take over the apartment?

The only person you can add to an existing rent-stabilized lease to share in all the benefits and responsibilities of the apartment along with you is a spouse, provided they live with you.

“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 as their primary residence for at least two years (or one year if your 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 and emotional relationship, such as a partner who shares your bank account or other legal and financial connections.

Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Leigh Kamping-Carder and Alanna Shubach.

 

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