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Ask Real Estate is a new weekly online column that answers questions from across the New York region. Submit yours to email@example.com.
Q. Our condo has had the same stale and corrupt board for nine years. One board member brags that other members take bribes from contractors. Our common charges keep rising. This year the board did not call an annual meeting, and last year it was called so late that few owners could attend, so there was no quorum and no new members were elected. Many owners want to overthrow the board. What’s our best course of action?
Upper West Side, Manhattan
A. I have one word for you: Organize. Your board sounds like a dysfunctional — and perhaps criminal — bunch.
You can report allegations of corruption to the attorney general or the district attorney, but unless you have real evidence, you won’t get very far. If you truly feel that your board does not have your best interests at heart, you’ll have the biggest effect if you install a new regime.
“The key issue is to force an election and take control of the board,” said Bruce A. Cholst, a real estate lawyer. “All the other issues will be addressed by the new board.”
Check the bylaws about meeting rules and see which ones you can use to force a meeting. For example, condominiums often have a rule allowing for meetings if 25 percent of the owners sign a petition calling for one. Next, assemble a team of candidates to run on a shared platform. Divide residents among them and have them go door to door to drum up support. Discuss these grievances with other residents, and urge them to vote. If residents aren’t able to attend a meeting, suggest that they tap a proxy to attend and vote on their behalf.
With luck, and a high turnout, your side will prevail. And you’ll improve your political skills along the way.
Q. When I moved into my rent-controlled apartment nearly 50 years ago, I paid for kitchen upgrades. Today the Formica counter, which I paid for, is worn and discolored. The landlord’s agent won’t allow me to replace it without raising my rent. Is that how the law reads?
Upper West Side, Manhattan
A. After 50 years, I can only imagine how worn these Formica countertops look. It certainly seems reasonable to want a fresh look. But as long as the countertops aren’t broken or defective, the landlord isn’t required to replace them, according to Lucas A. Ferrara, a real estate lawyer.
New countertops would be considered an apartment improvement, which means the landlord can raise your monthly rent by 1/60th or 1/40th of the cost, depending on the size of your building. So if the new counters and the installation totaled $2,000, the landlord could raise your rent by as much as $50 a month. The rent increase is permanent, long after that $2,000 is paid off and those new counters have lost their luster. (The website for the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal has information on renter’s rights.)
Tempting as it might be, resist the urge to do the work yourself. You risk eviction if your lease prohibits you from making modifications without written consent. And even if you are allowed to do the work, it opens you up to serious liability if anything goes wrong. Ask the landlord to give you an estimate for how much the work will cost. Once you have a firm number, then you can decide if the rent increase is worth the joy of new Formica.
Q. About five months ago, my neighbors and I discovered through rumors that our rental building is for sale and will very likely close soon. Yet the management company won’t tell us anything, despite repeated requests from tenants. Management has stopped renewing leases on a case-by-case basis. What rights do the tenants have to remain in the building? How can we find out more information if management won’t return our calls and everyone who works there claims not to know what’s going on?
Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
A. If your landlord sells the building, your rights as a tenant won’t change. So the real question is: What kind of tenant are you?
If you are a market-rate tenant, then you have no protection and the landlord doesn’t have to renew your lease, whether he sells the building or not. If you’re a rent-stabilized tenant, your rights remain the same, which means a new owner has to renew your lease, with some exceptions.
“What’s really most important right now is to figure out whether or not they are rent-regulated,” said Catharine A. Grad, a lawyer who represents tenants. “The landlord may not be treating them as rent-regulated, but that may not be correct.”
Before you start packing those moving boxes, do some digging. Tenants can file a Freedom of Information Request about the rental history of their apartments through the Division of Housing and Community Renewal. The rental history will tell you whether your apartment was ever rent-regulated and help you determine whether it was properly deregulated. It’s possible that the apartment should still be rent-regulated (even if you’re paying market-rate rent); if so, you have a right to a renewal lease.
To find out whether the building has been sold, you can search the city’s database of property records. Or you can browse the real estate websites to see if a listing for your building appears. While you’re scouring these listings, keep an eye out for good apartments because, unfortunately, you might soon need one for yourself.
Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org