NYC renter won $150,000 in back pay from landlord for overcharged rent

Residential apartment buildings are seen on July 26, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

  • Amid a housing crisis, many New Yorkers are looking to see if their apartments are rent-stabilized.
  • A New York State government portal that collects these requests has been overwhelmed.
  • Tenants tell Business Insider how they’ve managed to win back pay from their landlords.

About a decade ago, Danielle’s life changed.

She and her partner at the time lived in a small apartment in Cobble Hill, a hip brownstone neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, paying about $2,650 a month in rent.

It was their first-ever New York City apartment, and Danielle — whose last name is known to Business Insider, but withheld for privacy reasons — said they understood that, generally, New York “is going to be heinously expensive.” Like other new renters in the area, they were “unsavvy” when it came to apartment costs.

Then, two years into living there, Danielle requested her rent history — and learned that they were paying over $2,000 more than what the previous tenant had paid in rent. The unit was rent-stabilized, meaning it was one of about one million homes in the city where rent increases are regulated by the state.

However, Danielle said the landlord told them the unit was not stabilized when they signed their lease. Eventually, Danielle and her partner won a $150,000 settlement from their landlord, according to a copy of the lawsuit viewed by BI, with the stipulation that they would move out of their apartment.

“We turned around and took the money from the settlement and bought an apartment,” she said. Owning an apartment in New York City was previously unthinkable to them; suddenly, it was a reality.

Danielle is not alone. New Yorkers are now flocking to see if their units are rent-stabilized. They’re encountering an opaque system filled with twists and turns. It doesn’t help that, until recently, many New Yorkers didn’t even know they could access these records — or that their landlords might have been overcharging them. Danielle, for instance, only learned that she could request her rental history from a colleague who had worked in tenant rights.

“I already didn’t kind of trust landlords, but I guess I had lived in this world where I assumed that people, for the most part, told the truth about stuff,” she said, adding: “I just walked away with just a complete disgust of anyone who is a professional landlord, at least in New York City.”

As TikTok becomes the new town square for all things economic transparency, the latest target of populist ire is New York City landlords. Several videos that have recently gone viral show viewers how to look into their rent histories and call out examples of potentially illegal hikes. But for the renters newly discovering their rights, it’s not all smooth sailing.

“There’s just not enough resources, I think, for people who don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on lawyers’ fees to be able to advocate for themselves to stay in apartments,” Danielle said.

When TikTok found the renters

For years, snagging a rent-stabilized unit in New York City has been something of a holy grail.

More recently, rent stabilization was in the spotlight after the US Supreme Court declined to hear a case by landlords to weaken regulations. Meanwhile, New Yorkers are eager to learn if they’re overpaying.

Allia Mohamed was inspired to start a listings and landlord review platform called openigloo, in 2020 after struggling to find her own New York City apartment. She’s posted a series of viral videos on TikTok advising renters on how to obtain their rent history and determine if their unit is rent-stabilized.

The group has been helping tenants decipher the documents they get from the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which are often confusing and difficult to understand. Mohamed said she thinks tenants are being overcharged in about 5% of cases based on the rental histories openigloo has seen. They’ve also found errors or missing information in about 50% of rent history reports.

“The more information that tenants have, the more informed decisions that they can make about their housing,” Mohamed said.

Those videos are resonating: An influx of social media users has led to an “unprecedented” surge in rent history requests to the New York State government department that handles housing issues, as BI previously reported. Wait times for rent histories are now at 20 business days, up from 10 in late January, as a result of “social media activity.”

One renter in Washington Heights — whose identity is known to Business Insider but who requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions — said he was inspired to request his apartment’s rent history earlier this year after his boyfriend sent him a TikTok video explaining how to do it.

The history revealed that his unit — a $2,395 two-bedroom that he shares with a roommate — was rented for $885 in 2018. When that tenant left, the rent spiked. The tenant called DHCR, and an employee recommended that he file a complaint, which he did just a few days later. He doesn’t know if he’s been illegally overcharged or if he’ll end up seeing any financial benefit, but he views filing a claim as a win-win.

“In the worst-case scenario, nothing bad happens,” he said. “And in the best-case scenario, you know, it could really be life-changing.”

When Carla — whose last name is known to BI but withheld for privacy reasons — found a two-bedroom, rent-stabilized Lower East Side apartment on Craigslist for $1,850 a month, she knew it was a steal for the trendy Manhattan neighborhood. Luckily, she was the first person to see the apartment and apply for it, so she quickly signed the lease and moved in in December 2022.

Unlike most new New Yorkers, the 28-year-old had some familiarity with the city’s rent-stabilization program. Her aunt has long lived in a stabilized unit in Long Island City and has had to fight her landlord to stay there. So when it came time to renew her lease last fall, Carla decided to submit a request with DHCR for more information on her unit. When her rent history came back, it showed that the tenant before her paid just $875 in rent and her apartment’s rent was listed at $1,295.

“That was just like fireworks — I was like something is wrong here,” she said. “So I consulted with my aunt about it and I called the DHCR.”

The agency recommended she bring the issue to her landlord and see if they could resolve it without filing a claim. When Carla presented her landlord with the apartment’s rent history, he reimbursed her about $5,500 for the year of overcharged rent and lowered her rent to $1,468 per month.

A former social media content strategist, Carla was quick to post about her victory on her TikTok account. The video — which used a clip of Mohamed’s video advising renters to use DHCR’s resources — went viral with nearly 500,000 likes. She got so many comments and direct messages that she made a follow-up video addressing the most common questions she got. Carla is optimistic that videos like hers are making a difference. “I think this is gonna help a lot of people and hopefully save people some money,” she said.

Carla, a tenant in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, posted a viral TikTok video about her experience getting $5,500 in backpay and having her rent lowered by about $400 a month. Her experience investigating her own rent-stabilized unit is inspiring others to do the same.
Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images

But for some, relief is still far off

Anna Klenkar, a real estate broker in New York City, has had an overcharge complaint ongoing since 2016. She found out that her landlord was charging roughly an extra thousand dollars a month for many years.

“It is frustrating to know that your landlord is continuing to reap those financial benefits of being part of that system when they weren’t necessarily abiding by the rules of that system,” she said.

Klenkar has made TikToks about her old apartment and rent histories and has had “lots” of people reach out with their own rent histories. She’s even helped some put together their own complaints. But, like her own situation, that doesn’t mean they’ve been resolved quickly.

“I’ve seen people get overcharges dealt with pretty quickly, but that is much rarer. A lot of times they get dragged out for years and years and years,” she said.

As of 2022, Gothamist reported, DHCR had a backlog of 3,400 complaints. The agency reports that in the fiscal year 2022-23, it processed 818 overcharge complaints, up from 326 in 2020-21. Similarly, the count of overcharge orders granted nearly tripled over the same time period. More may be on their way as New Yorkers seem to be requesting their rent histories en masse. Over the last five years, the Office of Rent Administration has won back nearly $13.2 million in rent overcharges on behalf of tenants.

“The Office of Rent Administration, within New York State Homes and Community Renewal, continues to ensure the laws governing rent regulation are properly administered and enforced; that includes proactive audits, investigations, and other enforcement activities to protect more than one million tenants and New York’s rent regulated housing stock,” an HCR spokesperson said in a statement to BI.

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Openigloo is working on a publicly accessible map of rent-stabilized apartments across New York City. Because only the tenant or landlord of a particular unit can request rent history or ask DHCR to determine if a unit is rent stabilized, openigloo is asking tenants to share their rental histories with the group.

“A huge frustration for me, and this is just a sort of a broader policy discussion, is why is it on the onus of tenants who are not well-versed or educated in this area to actually enforce these laws on their behalf?” Mohamed said.

Esteban Girón, a member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union and the Tenants PAC Board of Directors, echoed that frustration around a system he viewed as favoring landlords.

“That’s why also that nothing is proactive when you’re dealing with rent stabilization — the tenant has to basically initiate everything, even if it’s something blatantly not legal,” he said.

Danielle, who ended up getting $150,000 in her settlement, said that she had difficulty parsing out what her housing documents meant even though she holds multiple post-graduate degrees. She imagines that it’s only worse for people who may not speak English or don’t have the time and resources to parse out the documents or find a lawyer who can. She said that they were “exceptionally lucky” with how everything turned out.

And her overcharge case has meant more than clawing back money she shouldn’t have paid. It’s also changed her life. The money, and the apartment they were able to buy with it, “has acted as a buffer for really the rest of the last decade of my life,” she said.

“It’s a huge difference between getting your foot in the door in terms of being a property owner, and not having $150,000 to put down on a down payment,” Danielle said. “So it makes all the difference.”

Are you a renter who found out you’re being overcharged, or got money back? Contact these reporters at erelman@businessinsider.com and jkaplan@businessinsider.com.



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