Q: I live in a Manhattan rental building and staff aren’t wearing masks anymore, much less screening visitors. The building has been lax the whole pandemic, but it’s gotten particularly bad in the last two weeks. I can’t force our neighbors to wear masks, but I am often on the elevator with three or four people, without enough room to safely socially distance. In response to an email, management said, “We can’t enforce anything,” and ignored my second email. I am feeling very unsafe. What can I do?
A: The state’s reopening plan includes detailed guidelines for how residential buildings should safely operate during the pandemic: Building staff should wear face coverings when they can’t safely socially distance; post signs and remind residents of the rules; sanitize surfaces; and screen visitors.
But the guidelines do not dictate consequences for failing to comply. So if your landlord refuses to compel building staff to follow the rules, your recourse is limited. Consider masks: “There are no penalties or fines for not wearing one,” said Jennifer Rozen, a lawyer who represents tenants. “Enforcement is at the discretion of local jurisdictions.”
The city Health Department will not send out an inspector if you report the kinds of conditions you described, according to Michael Lanza, a Health Department spokesman.
Avery Cohen, deputy press secretary for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the office is “focused on education and outreach, and have seen overwhelming compliance from buildings and management companies alike.” Calls to 311 about such issues would be directed to the sheriff’s office.
You could try a different approach. Your landlord is supposed to provide you with safe and habitable living conditions. By failing to take the minimum steps to keep the common areas safe, your landlord is putting you and your family at risk. You could withhold your rent, arguing that your landlord is violating your warranty of habitability, a state statute, by failing to make sure tenants and staff follow the guidelines. When your landlord sues you in housing court for nonpayment of rent, you bring your claim to the judge as a countersuit.
Before you take such a step, consult a lawyer who could first write the landlord a strongly worded letter demanding the building provide you with safe living conditions. This might be enough to get management to listen.
Standing up to your landlord has risks, particularly if you are a market-rate tenant. The landlord could refuse to offer you a new lease. However, you are protected by the retaliatory eviction law, so you could contest such a nonrenewal. But it may not come to this.
“It’s a renter’s market with tenants fleeing the city, and this complaint is reasonable to make,” Ms. Rozen said. So you may decide you’re in a position to take the risk of confronting your landlord to protect yourself.