New York City landlords can get into trouble with the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) if they subject tenants to a "reduction in service" as a way of getting around rent regulation. But often the definition of a reduction in service ranges from the trivial to the absurd. Dust balls under a radiator in an outside hallway? A scorch mark on a kitchen countertop? The doorman no longer wearing a hat? All these are real cases from DHCR's files. In each one of them, a hearing officer ruled that the tenant had presented a valid complaint and ordered a rent rollback.

Not only does DHCR seem to have no way to distinguish a trivial complaint from a serious matter—cutting off heat or refusing to replace a broken window, for example—but its examiners and hearing officers also frequently define as a "reduction in service" a condition that had existed long before the complaining tenant moved in. In a Manhattan case, DHCR granted a rent rollback (now under appeal) after tenants complained about the heavy iron front door—"the same door that had been there for 50 years," notes Blaine Schwadel, the owner's lawyer.

Will the DHCR mend its ways under the Pataki administration? Spokesman Louis Ganim promises that his agency will try to handle complaints in a way that is "more responsive and less costly to all involved." A good way to start would be to issue explicit written guidelines spelling out what constitutes a reduction in service, then summarily dismissing frivolous complaints.


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