Rent

It took 3 months to get our security deposit back. Here’s what we did

By Mary Lowengard | January 21, 2021 - 3:30PM 

A New Yorker turned to the mediation services offered by the AG's Bureau of Consumer Frauds and Protection to recover the funds.

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Moving is inherently stressful. Moving during a pandemic adds a whole new dimension of angst. Then there’s the run-around we encountered when we tried to get the security deposit from the old apartment returned. Happily, justice turned out to be easier than I expected.

Four years ago, I enthusiastically supported my daughter and her then-boyfriend’s decision to move from Boston to New York. I agreed to co-sign their lease with the boyfriend, as my daughter’s occupation at the time was Unemployed Striver.

Their new abode on the Upper-Upper East Side was one of 35 apartments in a plain Jane 1920’s six-story midblock building, a first-floor, two-room, one-closet apartment featuring a kitchen squeezed into a hallway and a Lilliputian-size bathroom. It lacked natural light, a dishwasher, and on-site laundry. The heating system was vintage and sporadic. On the plus side, it was four blocks from the subway and Starbucks, next door to a clean, well-lighted deli, and within the range of affordable. In short, a great Manhattan starter apartment.

After three, one-year lease renewals, my daughter and the then-boyfriend, now  her husband (and my son-in-law), announced they were ready for an adult apartment experience. They declined the renewal offer mailed to them in the spring, indicating they intended to vacate after their current lease expired on the last day of July.

The pandemic complicated but did not deter the apartment search. As they scouted, I mulled over moving logistics and the IKEA catalog.

New rule for getting a security deposit back

At some point, I casually asked my daughter about the security deposit. I got a shrug. She told me she had no realistic expectation to ever see that $2,100 in her lifetime, based on conversations with neighbors and internet complaints about her landlord.

This was a red flag for me. In fact, I knew that changes to New York’s rent laws mandated the return of security deposit, minus any damages, within 14 days. I made a note to make sure the deposit was refunded.  

The move went relatively smoothly. At least this time I didn’t back the rental truck into a late model Mercedes convertible as I was rushing to get the vehicle returned.

My daughter and SIL scrubbed their “old” apartment, readying it for its final inspection. The superintendent took photographs and accepted the keys. The SIL sent an email to the landlord verifying the move-out and inspection and again noting where to send the security deposit.

The  managing agent responded 11 days later reporting the check was being prepared by the accounting department. The SIL immediately emailed his thanks.

This story might have ended right here. But no.

They waited for the check.

And waited. Tick tock, 14 days came and went. The SIL took the initiative to email the managing agent on August 20th, requesting a status report. She wrote back shortly, indicating she would investigate the matter.

On September 15th, the SIL writes again. Radio silence is followed thereafter by crickets.

I tried to call the office directly. I have a couple years of reporting experience to my credit and know a thing or two about getting hold of people, but this was an exercise in frustration. Nobody answered or responded to voice mail. I punched in extensions for the agent, accounting department, legal department, and the unreceptive “reception.” No luck, bupkis.

By then it was two months past the deadline for return of the deposit. I told the SIL, “Now, we go to the mattresses.”

Another way to recover a security deposit

Before the 2019 rent reform law was passed, if tenants believed a landlord was unfairly holding onto a security deposit, they had two alternatives: Initiate an action in Small Claims Court—or give up.

A Small Claims Court filing requires paperwork and $30 fee. The notion of hanging out in a courthouse corridor while the pandemic was still raging gave me pause, even if I was confident Judge Judy (or her equivalent) would rule in our favor.

Also, while the process is inexpensive and straightforward, it further extends the time to get the money, assuming we win our open-and-shut case. And it was vexing that if the “judgement debtor” does not pay on polite request, we would have to initiate a collection action. More time, more frustration.

Enter the Office of the Attorney General. The Bureau of Consumer Frauds and Protection now offers an option for recovery through mediation services.

I filed a rent security complaint form, which is downloadable in an English or Spanish PDF. The pandemic motivated me to take advantage of the option to fill out and submit this document online. I feared that if I mailed it to an empty state office, it might sit there collecting dust before making its way to a work-from-home staff member.

The online option offers a way to attach supporting documents. I sent in PDFs of the lease, a letter we had sent via certified mail to the landlord of notice of intent to leave, proof that it was received, all email correspondence and, for good measure, a copy of the original money order for the first month’s rent and security deposit.

Seconds after hitting send, our complaint was acknowledged, and we were assigned an intake number. A follow-up phone number and email were offered for inquiries.

A week later, on October 23rd, the SIL received an email confirming that the complaint had been forwarded to the landlord with a request for a statement of position on the matter in this “consumer dispute.” The office would serve as mediator.

It never came to this. A check was cut on October 26th, arriving by FedEx the next day, no mediation necessary. If the landlord hadn’t been jolted into action, there was always Small Claims Court.

My daughter and son-in-law are comfortably settled in their (relatively) spacious, light-filled, consistently heated, stainless-steel appliance’d apartment with the expansive basement laundry room. Their building is managed with military efficiency. While it appears that the owner is unlikely to give them a runaround if and when they decide to move on, it’s OK, they now know what to do. My work is done.

Mary Lowengard is a writer and editor who has been in a New York Real Estate State of Mind since 1971. 

 

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