I Talked My Landlord Into Replacing My Kitchen Cabinets For Free—Here’s How

published Dec 4, 2020
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When I moved into my current apartment over eight years ago, I wasn’t very focused on the details of the place—I simply needed a place to live. I was a year or so out of college and still under the false impression that “nightmare apartments” were something of a New York City rite of passage, so I put up with many of the idiosyncrasies that defined my new home. “This is just a for-now issue,” I told myself. “The next apartment will be nicer.”

As the years went on, however, I realized that not only did moving seem like a hassle, but that I actually liked my apartment and wanted better for it—and for myself. In my case, “better” meant a number of things, including my kitchen cabinets, which were coated in tacky oil buildup.

It was the last issue that tipped me off to the fact that my landlord hadn’t done a thorough job of making sure my apartment was ready for a new tenant when the old one moved out: At the time, I rarely cooked, so I knew the grease and grime wasn’t me. And no matter how much time I spent scrubbing my counters on the weekend, the filth would not budge.

So, I reached out to my landlord last spring to ask for the necessary repairs. After several weeks of making my case, they said yes, and remodeled both my kitchen and my bathroom for free. That doesn’t mean the process was a dream, however. Ever one to seek out feedback about what I could do better next time (should I need to), I spoke with Andrea Shapiro, the director of advocacy and programs at the Met Council on Housing in New York City, for her advice on how tenants can advocate for—and actually receive—the repairs their apartments need.

The earlier you speak up about an issue, the better

When I first noticed my crumbling kitchen countertop, I thought it was annoying, but fixable. Simply tighten the screw that was holding it to the wall and it would be okay, right? That logic worked until it didn’t, and I was left with a rotting fixture within a matter of months.

“People often wait for something big to be broken before they advocate for repairs, mainly because they don’t want to deal with their landlord or they think they can get by, but we really stress people deal with repair issues early,” Shapiro says. If not, the small issue can lead to a larger issue—she points to a small leak in the ceiling leading to a ceiling collapsing over time. It’s better to ask your landlord to check the leak out now, rather than to deal with a catastrophe later.

Speaking up also provides you leverage on multiple points: “If you do have a bad landlord, starting out early gives you more momentum for when something big happens,” Shapiro adds. “And if you have a good landlord, you get the repair done and it’s over with.”

Know the difference between an upgrade and a repair

Some renter hacks—like swapping out a sink faucet for a nicer one because you want an extendable arm—are considered upgrades rather than repairs. And while your landlord might do that for you, you might also be expected to foot the bill.

Shapiro says that according to New York City law, improvements such as an upgraded appliance (if the current one isn’t broken) are called individual apartment increases (IAIs)—and a landlord can raise a tenant’s rent as a way to charge them for the upgrades. (The maximum amount a landlord can charge a tenant for this kind of work is $15,000, but even that is no small price tag.)

“Most times, these IAIs happen during a vacancy but they can happen while a tenant is in the apartment,” she warns. The good news, however, is that your landlord can’t decide to make an upgrade that qualifies for an IAI to an apartment you’re currently living in, without your consent. “Your landlord will ask you to sign something saying you’re going to get a rent increase,” Shapiro notes, “and you can argue whether you’d want it or not. Your landlord isn’t supposed to just increase your rent and then tell you about it.”

Because my landlord never asked me to sign anything, I was worried I’d be hit with a surprise rent increase, either on my next bill, or when time came to renew my lease. Neither happened, but knowing that I would have needed to consent to any increase in advance would have given me major peace of mind.

Document everything

The first time you notice that something is wrong in your apartment, take a picture of it and find a way to mark the date. Many cameras (including your smartphone’s camera) will imprint metadata that contains the date into the picture, but you can also take a photo with that day’s newspaper and the date clearly visible in the image, Shapiro suggests.

It’s also a good idea to make sure you put all of your requests in writing. When I advocated for my repairs, I did so over email, with my roommate on CC to serve as a third party. Shapiro suggests taking things a step further by sending your landlord a certified letter, if you can.

“We often say, don’t talk to your landlord, write your landlord instead,” she says. “That way you have proof that they received the complaints.” You can also use social media to publicize your issues, especially if other tenants are dealing with disrepair problems and want to hold a rally. The point, Shapiro says, is “to get some news out there about what’s happening in your building and put pressure on your landlord to fix the problem.”

Talk to your neighbors

New York City gets a bad rap as a town where people rarely meet the people next door, but doing so can can unearth similar problems in their apartments—one neighbor I talked to revealed to me that there were 48 separate housing code violations in his place.

“One of the major things that any tenants can do is organize with each other, whether that’s for building-wide repairs or if everyone needs repairs to their unit,” Shapiro says, adding that “it’s almost never the case that you’re the only person who needs a repair. We’ll visit a building where somebody will say, ‘My refrigerator has been broken for months,’ and then we’ll hear from five other people in that building who have the same issue.”

Going to your landlord as a group also provides the benefit of backup. Shapiro says the general advice that you shouldn’t talk to your doctor alone goes double for landlords. “Have someone with you to make sure that you say what you actually needed to say, and that you were listened to,” she says.

If you need it, reach out for extra support

Whether you talk to an organization like the Met Council on Housing or reach out to your local representatives, there is going to be someone in your city who can help protect your rights as a renter.

“Nearly every city in the U.S. has some sort of tenants organization, and usually your state attorney general or city’s attorney general will have some sort of tenant’s rights information,” Shapiro says. She also recommends reaching out to a city council member, county commissioner, or a representative like a state senator or assembly member—if their office doesn’t staff someone whose job it is to advocate for tenants, they should be able to point you in the right direction.

Make sure your landlord fully addresses the problem the first time around

If you’ve ever spot-treated an issue as a way to buy yourself time on fixing it, you know that doing so might be satisfying in the short term, but can cause major problems down the line. “A colleague on the hotline once talked to someone whose door for their bedroom was coming off and the landlord kept slightly fixing it up,” Shapiro remembers. The tenant eventually was locked into their room because the door frame was rotted and caused the door to fall off its hinges. “By not getting the smaller repairs and not advocating for the landlord to actually pay attention to what’s happening, it causes a big repair,” she notes, adding that such attention to detail also applies to appliances that don’t quite work.

“If something feels wrong to you, it’s good to talk to your landlord and to start advocating so you get those things fixed and changed,” she says.

Don’t forget that the law is (mostly) on your side

“New York is a renter’s city,” Shapiro says. “We have a very long history, going back to the early 1900s, of tenants fighting for their rights and winning.”

Though it might be frustrating to need to take your landlord to court over repairs, doing so can result in meaningful change. “Tenants can always take their landlord to court for repairs,” Shapiro says, adding that it’s a tenant’s right to do so. And while you might be worried that your landlord could try to make your life worse somehow as an act of revenge, you can rest assured that, if you’re paying rent on time and are otherwise being a good tenant, housing codes will back you up.

“The only way your landlord can evict you is by going to court,” Shapiro points out. “You have a right to a lawyer right now in New York, and if you get any notices about evictions, it’s really important to contact someone.”