Real Estate

My Landlord Disappeared With the Security Deposit. How Do I Get It Back?

Q: After selling our apartment in Brooklyn, my family and I rented for 14 months from an owner in our building. We thought we had a good relationship with her and took excellent care of the apartment. But when we moved out, she returned only a small portion of our security deposit and said she was withholding the rest while she assessed some “questionable” issues. All were either her responsibility, like changing the locks, or the building’s. She never told us where the security deposit was being held, nor produced an invoice showing how the deposit was used to address any issues. We’ve heard nothing since August, despite our attempts to reach her. We are now living overseas and are out thousands of dollars. What can we do?

A: Your landlord has likely violated New York state laws by not returning your security deposit in a timely manner and by not giving you an invoice with details of damage to the apartment and the way your deposit was used to fix it. The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 requires landlords to return security deposits within 14 days of the tenant leaving the unit, except for itemized damages beyond normal wear and tear.

The law is clear: If a landlord fails to provide the tenant with the itemized statement and deposit within two weeks, “the landlord shall forfeit any right to retain any portion of the deposit.” The burden of proof is on the landlord; violating this law could mean paying the tenant up to twice the amount of the deposit.

You can write a demand letter requesting that the security deposit be returned, and a possible offer to enter an out-of-court settlement in order to avoid litigation, with a forwarding address, said Steven Ben Gordon, a lawyer who represents tenants.

If that doesn’t work, filing a lawsuit in small claims court could help you recover your money. Living overseas might make this difficult if you’re unable to make it to New York to represent yourself. You can hire a lawyer, but you should weigh the cost of attorney’s fees against whatever money you could recoup in court.

Even if the landlord had given you a list of damages within 14 days, but the items weren’t sufficient reasons to withhold the deposit, “then you have a lawsuit where the tenant is going to win,” said Joshua Price, a real estate lawyer based in Manhattan.

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