This article was written by the team of NYC-based housing experts at nonprofit JustFix
Landlords often tack extra fees onto your rent bill — some illegal and some legal. But, whether they’re legal or not, you can’t be evicted for refusing to pay them.
Landlords love to heap extra fees on top of your already too-high rent bill. These fees are technically called “non-rent fees.” But, there’s some good news: in New York State, the law limits these fees, and, often, the landlord has no legal way to collect them. Here’s a list of the most common fees tenants see on their rent bills.
Understanding late fees requires a two-step analysis:
Step 1: Check out your lease. If you are a rent stabilized tenant, look at your first-ever lease for your apartment (the later leases do not matter). If you are a market tenant, look at your most recent lease.* The lease should have a “late fees” clause that tells you how much, if anything, you might owe in late fees. If the lease does not have a clause about late fees, the owner cannot collect late fees at all. What if you no longer have your first lease? If your landlord also doesn’t have the lease, the landlord has no way of charging any late fee at all.
Step 2: look to the law! As of June 2019, the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act (“HSTPA”) protects tenants from hefty late fees. If your lease allows for late fees, your landlord can only charge whatever is less — 5% of the monthly rent or $50. That means no New York State landlord can charge more than $50 in late fees per month. If the total rent for your apartment is less than $1,000 per month, the maximum late fee would be even lower.
Finally, remember that late fees are considered “non-rent” fees. This means that a landlord cannot sue you in an eviction case in housing court over late fees. Instead, the landlord would have to start a case in civil court and could not evict you for failure to pay late fees.
Sometimes, after a repair, a landlord will add a “damage fee” to your rent bill, claiming that you caused the damage in your apartment.
Under New York law, every residential lease has an “implied warranty of habitability.” That means that no matter what your lease says about who has to make repairs in your apartment, your landlord must pay for and complete repairs in a timely fashion. Even if you caused the damage, the landlord must make the repairs.
In order to collect damages fees, the landlord must prove that you, your household members, or guests caused the damage through negligence or bad acts. With bed bugs, for example, landlords often claim you brought them into the apartment. But, proving who “invited” bed bugs to a New York City apartment is nearly impossible, and the owner must pay for the extermination. Learn more about how to handle bed bugs.
Just like with late fees, damages fees are considered “non-rent” fees. This means that the owner cannot evict you in housing court over damages fees. To collect these fees, the landlord would have to take you to civil court and ask the judge for a money judgment. In court, the landlord would have to prove you, your household members or guests caused the damage.
Legal fees (also known as attorneys’ fees) are a landlord’s attempt to pass off their legal costs to you. Lawyers can cost hundreds of dollars an hour, so legal fees on your rent bills can look very scary! The good news — tenants rarely actually owe legal fees. Just like with late fees, figuring out whether you owe legal fees requires a two-step analysis:
Step 1: Check out your lease. For rent stabilized tenants, only the first lease matters! For market tenants, look at your most recent lease. The landlord may only collect attorneys if the lease has a legal or attorneys’ fees clause.
Keep in mind: if the lease allows the landlord to collect legal fees, you also have the right to collect legal fees for your own lawyer costs if you win the dispute! If the first lease doesn’t mention legal fees (or your landlord has lost the lease), the landlord has no right to collect them.
Step 2: Legal fees are only collectible if a judge orders you to pay them. Even if your lease has an attorneys’ fees clause, the landlord must win a case against you in court, AND a judge must order the payment of these legal fees. If the landlord sues you and you settle with a written agreement, you do not have to agree to pay legal fees! Be careful when you sign agreements with the landlord in court and cross out any clause that requires you to pay legal fees.
While a landlord might charge you legal fees after sending a demand for late rent or starting an eviction case against you, there’s no reason to pay them unless your lease allows for fees AND the landlord gets an order from a judge.
In rent stabilized and rent controlled apartments, landlords have the right to charge special monthly fees for appliances as set forth by the New York State Division of Homes and Community Renewal (“DHCR”). But, the landlord has to follow specific rules. Again, consider a two-step analysis:
Step 1: The landlord has to charge you within a reasonable period of time. If you’ve had your washing machine or air conditioning for years, the landlord cannot start charging you out of the blue. If a new owner buys your building and the prior owner never collected these fees, that new landlord has no right to start collecting fees for a washing machine or air conditioning you’ve had for years.
Step 2: Even if the landlord charges the fees in a reasonable period of time, fees cannot exceed the rules set by DHCR. The amount depends on a few factors, including whether you or the landlord pays for electricity.
In rent stabilized apartments, air conditioning units cost roughly $5.00 each per month and washing machines around $16.00 per month. For market rate apartments, landlords do not usually charge separately for appliances. Any applicable charges would have to be explained clearly in the lease.
Sometimes, you’ll see random fees with no explanation on your rent bill. Again, these fees are NOT for rent, and for an owner to collect them, the owner would have to sue you, prove the fees owed, and get an order from a judge.
What can I do about illegal fees? Here are some options:
If you are rent stabilized or rent controlled, send your bills to DHCR using a rent overcharge form and ask the state to order the landlord to remove the charges (see page #2 and item #13 on the form). Learn more about non-rent fees in a rent-regulated apartment.
Write a letter asking the landlord to remove illegal fees from your rent bill. If the landlord refuses to explain the fees or the explanation does not convince you to pay, ignore the fees and don’t pay them.
Can the landlord keep my security deposit for unpaid fees? Legally, the landlord cannot keep your security deposit for any kind of unpaid fee other than the damage you caused to the apartment beyond reasonable wear and tear. But, some landlords will deduct fees from your security anyway. If you think your landlord might keep your deposit, you have some options:
Some tenants opt to withhold their last month of rent, expecting that the owner will keep their security deposit. This is not technically allowed under the law and could result in a bad landlord reference if you need one for your next apartment. But, if you need that security deposit back, it’s an option!
If your rent bill has a mountain of fees, your neighbors probably have the same problem. Learn more about your landlord and other buildings your landlord controls using JustFix’s Who Owns What Tool.