Save 18 Key Documents in Tenants’ Files to Avoid Rent, Eviction Problems
As an owner or manager, you probably deal with dozens of different documents relating to rent-stabilized tenants. For example, you have leases and renewal leases to fill out and sign, apartment registrations to file with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), and window guard and lead paint notices that you must send to tenants each year.
It’s important to keep copies (or in some cases, the originals) of certain of these documents in your tenants’ files. Without these key documents, you may, for example, have to refund a rent overcharge to a tenant, lose a nonpayment case against a tenant in court, or be unable to get rent hikes you would otherwise be entitled to.
18 Key Documents
Here are the 18 key documents you should keep in each rent-stabilized tenant’s file:
1. Lease application. This is the application the tenant filled out when he applied for an apartment in your building.
Reason: The application may contain important information you’ll need later (for example, emergency contact information).
2. Credit report and related information. Keep a copy of the credit report you got for the tenant, and attach any other related documents you asked the tenant to provide (for example, photo identification) during the tenant screening process.
Reason: Like the application, the credit report may contain information you’ll need later on. For example, if the tenant skips out owing rent and you get a judgment against him, the credit report may give you information on the tenant’s assets so you can collect on that judgment.
Also, credit reports may help you fight future discrimination complaints brought by apartment applicants you’ve rejected. For example, if an applicant claims that you rejected him because of his race, rather than his ability to pay the rent, you can use the credit reports of applicants you accepted as tenants to show that they all had a higher income than the rejected applicant.
3. First lease. Keep the original (not a copy) of the first lease you signed with the tenant.
Reason: You’ll need the original first lease if you sue to evict the tenant in housing court for nonpayment of rent or for some other reason.
This is also especially important for rent-stabilized tenants because all renewal leases with a tenant will be on the same terms and conditions as the first lease you signed with the tenant. For example, if the first lease has an attorney’s fees clause, this clause will apply to all future renewal leases with the tenant. So it’s important to know what clauses are included in the tenant’s first lease.
4. Renewal leases. Keep originals of all renewal leases you signed with the tenant.
Reason: Again, you’ll need these if you want to sue to evict the tenant for nonpayment of rent or for some other reason.
5. Apartment registrations. Keep copies of all annual apartment registrations you delivered to the tenant and filed with the DHCR. Also, keep any proof of delivery of the registration to the tenant (for example, certificate of mailing) and proof of filing with the DHCR (for example, the return receipt).
Reason: If the tenant files a rent overcharge complaint, you’ll need to show that you’ve delivered and filed apartment registrations in the four years before the date of the tenant’s complaint.
6. Initial registration. If the tenant was the first rent-stabilized tenant to live in the apartment, you should have sent him an initial registration statement and filed a copy of that registration with the DHCR. Keep a copy of the initial registration and proof that you delivered it to the tenant and filed it with the DHCR (for example, a certificate of mailing).
Reason: A tenant’s right to challenge the initial rent-stabilized rent in a fair market rent appeal is limited by when you delivered the initial registration. A tenant can’t file a fair market rent appeal more than four years after you delivered the initial registration. So having this proof can help you show that the tenant no longer has a right to file a fair market appeal.
7. DHCR orders. Keep copies of all DHCR orders affecting the tenant’s apartment. This includes orders deciding rent overcharge and reduced service complaints, fair market rent appeals, and major capital improvement (MCI) applications.
Reason: These orders can help you be sure of what rent you’re legally allowed to charge, if the question ever arises. They can also help you prove to the tenant and the DHCR that this is the legal rent. For example, say a tenant claims that you’ve started collecting an illegal rent increase. But, in fact, the DHCR had issued an order granting you an MCI rent increase affecting the tenant’s apartment. By showing the tenant a copy of the order, you may avert a possible rent overcharge complaint. Also, if the tenant goes ahead and complains of a rent overcharge based on the rent increase, you can submit a copy of the MCI order to the DHCR to help prove that you’re not collecting a rent overcharge.
8. Proof of apartment improvements. You’ll want to keep proof that shows you made an improvement, how much it cost, and that you paid for it. Any number of documents will do this, including copies of invoices and canceled checks for work done in the apartment.
Reason: If a tenant files a rent overcharge complaint, claiming that you improperly collected a rent increase for improvements, you can use these documents to prove that you made and paid for the improvements, and what they cost. If you made the improvements while the apartment was vacant, this proof alone will show that you’re entitled to the increase.
9. Tenant’s signed consent to improvements and rent increase. If you made apartment improvements while the apartment was occupied, in addition to the proof in #8, you must show that the tenant consented to the improvements and the increase. Since the tenant signs this document, it’s a good idea to keep the original, signed document.
Reason: You’ll need this to justify your right to collect an improvements rent hike if you made improvements while the apartment was occupied.
10. Window guard notices. Keep copies of all original, signed window guard notices the tenant returns to you. Between Jan. 1 and Jan. 16 of each year, you’re required to send tenants annual window guard notices. However, if you deliver the notice with the January rent bill, you don’t have to re-deliver it to the tenant in January.
You’re also required to send tenants window guard notices when you renew their leases. Tenants must return these notices to let you know if a child 10 years or younger lives in the apartment and, if so, whether approved window guards are properly installed or maintained. The law requires you to install window guards in all apartments where a child 10 years or younger lives.
Reason: Keeping these returned notices or proof that you sent notices that weren’t returned can help you beat a violation from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) for not having window guards in an apartment. For example, say you get a DOHMH violation for not having window guards in an apartment where a child age 10 or younger lives. But the tenant sent back the notice stating that no children age 10 or younger lived in the apartment. You can use that returned notice to fight the DOHMH violation.
Keeping the signed notices or proof that you sent notices that weren’t returned can also help you if a child is injured falling from a window that didn’t have a window guard. If you’re sued by the tenant, you may be able to show that the tenant didn’t return the notice or indicated that no children age 10 or younger lived in the apartment. This can help explain why you didn’t install window guards in the apartment.
11. Lead paint notices. You’re required to send all tenants (both regulated and unregulated) various lead paint notices with their vacancy and/or renewal leases. These include:
- A Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) lead paint notice (along with a DOHMH lead paint hazards pamphlet). You must send this notice to new tenants and renewing tenants;
- An annual HPD lead paint notice, which must be sent to current occupants each year between Jan. 1 and Jan. 16; and
- A Department of Housing and Urban Development/Environmental Protection Agency (HUD/EPA) disclosure form (along with a pamphlet).
Keep copies of these documents in each tenant’s file, along with proof that you sent them (for example, if you hand-delivered an annual HPD lead paint notice to a tenant, get a signed statement acknowledging receipt of this notice and keep a copy of this statement in the tenant’s file).
Reason: Not sending these notices can result in stiff fines. So keep proof that you sent them, in case the question ever comes up.
12. Tenant correspondence. Keep copies of all correspondence you get from and send to tenants.
Reason: This can help you keep track of any issues raised by the tenant and how you responded to them. It can also help you show that before starting an eviction case against a tenant, you warned him about certain unacceptable behavior (for example, disturbing other tenants by playing loud music late at night). Also, if you keep track of all correspondence, you may be able to show that a tenant didn’t give you notice that a certain repair was needed.
13. Work orders. Keep copies of all work orders relating to repairs made in the apartment.
Reason: If the tenant files a reduced service complaint with the DHCR or claims in housing court that you violated the warranty of habitability, you can submit copies of work orders as proof that you did the needed work in the apartment.
14. Inspection reports. Your employees may conduct inspections of tenants’ apartments for various reasons. Sometimes, these inspections are required by law. For example, you’re required to conduct annual lead paint inspections of any apartment in which a child under the age of 6 lives if the apartment is in a building that has three or more apartments and was built before Jan. 1, 1960. Sometimes, inspections are voluntary. For example, you may send your employees to make sure that smoke detectors are working or to check for damage to the apartment after the tenant has moved out.
Reason: For inspections required by law, keeping a copy of the inspection report will help you prove that you conducted the required inspection, if the question ever comes up. And it’s a good idea to keep reports of voluntary inspections so you can keep track of any problems in the apartment and make sure appropriate follow-up action was taken. Also, keeping inspection reports detailing the condition of an apartment after move-out can help you justify to the tenant or a court a deduction you took from the tenant’s security deposit.
15. Certifications of correction of violations. Many city agencies require you to certify correction of violations in a tenant’s apartment. If you correct any violations and certify their correction, keep copies of these certifications in your file, along with proof that you mailed them to the applicable agency.
Reason: If a tenant claims that you didn’t correct a violation, you’ll have proof that you did. This is important. A violation on your building’s records can interfere with your getting certain rent hikes or recovering rent in a nonpayment case.
16. Insurance reports. You may get an insurance report relating to an incident involving a particular tenant. Keep a copy of this report in the tenant’s file.
Reason: You may need this report later if a tenant sues you based on the incident.
17. Vacate letter. This is a letter the tenant may send to you stating that he plans to vacate the apartment on a particular date. Since the tenant signed the document, be sure to keep the original.
Reason: This letter shows that you had the legal right to change the locks and rent the apartment to a new tenant. So it can help you avoid a claim of illegal eviction if the tenant changes his mind.
18. Surrender agreement. The tenant may sign a legal document called a “surrender agreement,” agreeing to give up possession of the apartment before the termination date in the lease. Again, since the tenant signs the document, keep the original.
Reason: This shows that you had the legal right to change the locks and rent the apartment to a new tenant.