How Bad Does Your Landlord Have to Screw Up to Justify a Month’s Free Rent?

ceiling2One Sunday evening, my elder child called to me from the shower, with apparent alarm, “Dad! It’s raining in here!” Since this was a 10-year-old and 10-year-olds are prone to goofy, physical humor, I mostly expected to find him in the shower under an umbrella, but lo and behold, the water was not running, he was toweling off, and there was a distinct sound of light rain on a tin roof coming from the bathroom ceiling.

“Huh,” I said. “Brush your teeth.”

Five minutes later, with a toothbrush in his hand and a told-ya-so tone in his voice, he reported, “Dad, there’s water coming out of the ceiling.” And he was right: a steady trickle was coming out of the vent fan and puddling on the floor.

“Huh,” I said again, and went to find a bucket.

After my kids were in bed, I went and knocked on my upstairs neighbor’s door. Mary is good people, and not a crazy person (my building has its share), so I felt a little sheepish asking whether she had accidentally let her tub fill up and run over. But that seemed like the most obvious possibility, and she and I are on good terms (enough time has passed since my raucous, late-night Passover Seder, and I did leave her flowers and an apology note), so I asked. She assured me that no one had taken a bath or let water spill onto the floor, and mentioned that the previous tenants in my place had had a problem with water leaking from her apartment, and she didn’t know how well it ever got fixed. I said, “Huh.”

I called the building’s emergency maintenance number, and after dealing with a silly answering service (Them: “Hello, [Name of Building] emergency line.” Me: “Hi, I’m in apartment XXX, and…” Them: “What’s the address you’re calling from?”), I got a call back from the maintenance guy. I told him what was happening, and that my upstairs neighbors hadn’t let water overflow, but had taken a shower.

Him: “Is the ceiling still leaking?”

Me: “No, it just stopped.”

Him: “OK, can you ask your neighbors not to take a shower again until we get there tomorrow?”

Me, in my head: “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Me, out loud: “No. Maybe you should call them.”

Him: “OK. We’ll call you back tomorrow.”

Thus began a month-long odyssey of incompetence. A few days went by, the leak continued, and no one called or came to the apartment. I stopped by the building office to mention it, and they promised to get on it. The leak continued. I ran into the maintenance guy outside the building, and he told me that the problem was that my upstairs neighbor wasn’t “using her shower curtain properly,” so water was getting on the floor and causing the leak. This seemed preposterous to me, because, well, it was a lot of water, and I don’t think bathroom floors are that porous. But what do I know?

The leak got worse, and my ceiling started to get big discolorations and the waterproof paint on the walls started to bubble up. I wrote a letter and gave it to the office, detailing how two weeks had gone by with no apparent action, and how the shower curtain theory seemed far-fetched, and how the ceiling was getting worse and I was afraid it might collapse. At that point, water made it through the space behind my wall and down to the ceiling of the lobby below me. This prompted immediate action in the lobby, but none in my apartment, where buckets kept filling up. The maintenance guy hewed to blaming the upstairs neighbor, and intimated to me that she was “pretty crazy,” a confidence framed in a way that seemed predicated on her being American and his assuming that I was Puerto Rican like him.

At the end of week four, I came home from a long weekend to find the ceiling splitting along the center where two pieces of sheetrock met, held together only by the metal frame of the ventilation fan. My girlfriend called maintenance, who assured us they’d come take a look the next morning. 20 minutes later, while we sat in the living room, a mighty “whoomp!” signaled that the ceiling had collapsed in a mess of wet plaster and sheetrock, exposing the empty in-between space. Just then, our upstairs neighbor took a shower, and there was an honest-to-God rainstorm in our bathroom.

I had documented every step of the ceiling’s decline, and I did the same with its failure. I even took video of the indoor rain. Then I cleaned up and started writing an angry email. And what an angry email it was! I looked up the building codes and the procedure for filing reports of code violations. I detailed every contact I’d made with the building . I attached pictures of the ceiling and of the letter I’d written, and of the bathtub filled with soggy sheetrock. I concluded thus:

I should get a significant discount on one month’s rent for all this trouble – if not a whole free month. If this were a sudden failure, I could understand, but [management company] let this get as bad as it is by failing to take adequate action when I reported the problem. July was a month of leaky ceilings, falling plaster, having to empty buckets and mop up puddles, and repeatedly asking for help from building management.

I will wait to hear from you before paying August rent. If we cannot reach a sensible agreement about this matter, I will, of course, pay the rent in full, and will then report the matter to the City of Hartford’s Office of Housing Code Enforcement and go to court, if necessary, to recover some of July’s rent. I really hate to take this approach because everyone in building management has always been courteous and friendly to me. But I should not have to pay for [management company’s] negligence in investigating complaints and making repairs.

After a few days, I hadn’t heard anything, so I sent a follow-up email, and the building manager said she would let me know “by Tuesday of next week.” And then there was silence.

It turned out (surprise!) that there was a real leak behind my neighbor’s wall. It took all of August for the leak and the ceiling to be replaced. I still haven’t heard whether they expect rent for August, but now it’s a new month and I’m going to write “September rent” on the memo line of my check and assume everything is squared away.

Moral of the story: complain in writing; take lots of pictures, use the word “negligence”; threaten litigation.


Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags. His views do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.


17 Comments / Post A Comment

Liz the Lemur (#3,125)

Your landlord and Meghan’s landlord should hang out.

erinep (#4,236)

@Liz the Lemur When I saw the headline I was excited for a Meghan/landlord story!

@erinep The thing is, my landlord is usually pretty cool. I don’t quite know what happened here.

Beans (#1,111)

my kitchen ceiling has leaked for the past 10 months and my slumlord (I MEAN LANDLORD) has fixed it approximately 80%. i can’t even talk about it without getting red in the face.

E$ (#1,636)

This happened to me when I was 22 and I had no idea that it wasn’t normal for your landlord to leave a hole in your ceiling for weeks and weeks. They ended up putting back the insulation but not the whole ceiling panels, making each shower a little bit terrifying So, I say, get ’em for all you can, Josh!

My very first apartment (South Williamsburg, 2002, when it was still kind of sketchy), our heat went out for several months, and we couldn’t seem to get the landlord to fix it. Our landlord was Hassidic, and I realize now that there were probably some weird tensions based on our perceived class and its implications for the neighborhood’s burgeoning gentrification, but it was very clear from our brief interactions with him that he did not have a great deal of respect for three girls barely in their twenties living alone. And so when the heat went out, it stayed out, in spite of all the strongly-worded letters we could send…and since we didn’t pay for gas, my roommates and I would turn on the stove and leave the door open to warm the place up enough to be habitable in New York in the winter. Luckily we did not die from either fire or carbon monoxide poisoning.

We discussed it with our upstairs neighbor–a woman who had been living in the building for a long time–and she told us that she had not paid rent for years, because she had asked for some repairs that the landlord was unwilling to make, because he determined that the repairs would, somehow, cost more than her rent was bringing in. I think everyone was happy with that situation but us.


Whoa… what kind of repairs did she need?

@emmycantbemeeko I couldn’t tell you…it was a long time ago, and I’m not sure she ever told us in the first place. I think it was more that her place was rent-controlled and she had lived there for decades, so the rent was very low. It does sound pretty crazy, though…one of those things that I sometimes wonder if I imagined it, but my former roommate seems to remember it too!

@mirror_father_mirror Ahem, that should be “oven,” not stove. The oven, which we turned on and left open.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

I had an apartment in providence where birds came through the bathroom vent fan in the ceiling. So I guess, like, at least it wasn’t birds?

PicNic (#3,760)

this has basically been happening to me for the last 3 years in my apartment! The first time it leaked in my bathroom from the upstairs neighbor I called the property manager and the maintenance guy, I kid you not, was so condescending I almost had a rage stroke. He informed me that maybe I didn’t know, but when it was hot out sometimes condensation was created on the outside of the toilet bowl and that could make a small puddle on the floor. I was like I know what condensation is, it’s not from that. Then he said I probably wasn’t using my shower curtain properly and that it was creating a puddle on the floor and I said that while I am speaking to him, in that exact moment, I am watching water drip from the ceiling. He still didn’t believe me but said he’d come by “in a few days.” He didn’t. I called the owner of the property, who called me back from his daughters soccer game and apologized profusely for the maintenance guy and said he’d be over the same day. They “fixed” my leak, but I think they just used tape and replaced the ceiling tiles. The leak has returned at least 3 times and each time they do the same patch job. Then this spring my upstairs neighbor frantically called me and said he and the landlord needed permission to enter my apartment immediately because there was a broken pipe and my bathroom had been completely flooded. The ceiling had disintegrated, the ceiling stains reached into my bedroom (bathroom adjacent) and my floor was so drenched it leaked into the kitchen of the girls that live below me. They replaced the ceiling tiles, mopped up the water and left. no fans to dry out the floor in case of mold (which I got), no floor replacement, no touch ups from the leaks, nothing. my upstairs neighbor got all new floors. My downstairs neighbors got an entirely new kitchen ceiling. I got a few ceiling tiles and missed a day and a half of work and spent a ton of money on bleach and cleaning everything out. A month later I had a giant house centipede from the soggy floor boards and flipped out at them so they finally replaced my peeling cracked linoleum bathroom floor.

Getting all riled up just thinking about it again! Happy I’m planning to move sometime this winter/spring.

callmeprufrock (#5,158)

I complained to my landlord when we went two months without gas in our building (and therefore no stoves / spotty hot water) in the middle of winter. I asked for a 1/3 reduction in rent for one month, which amounted to something like $650. She lent me a hot plate, refused any discount, and then refused to renew my lease several months later. So, I am now terrified of complaining to any landlord ever for fear of losing my apartment.

I lived in a similarly poorly-maintained building in college where the bathtub from the apartment above actually came halfway down through the ceiling (thankfully, nobody was in either tub at the time). We moved out shortly thereafter because the building went condo, lolololol.

I moved earlier this spring, and I got 2 weeks rent comped because the apartment was very, very dirty when I moved in. It’s not like there was trash or leftover furniture or anything like that, it just needed some good scrubbing (I had just bought the Clean Person’s book so wanted my new life in my new apartment to be sparkling and fresh.) So having a ceiling collapse or constant leaking or any of that really should count for something. But, I have a somewhat unusual circumstance in that I know the owner (not the owner or his manager) of the building, so things get fixed promptly for me. I’m not sure if the same deal would have been cut for someone else in the building.

The abatement went in part toward paying for cleaners to come in, but the rest helped offset my moving costs overall, which ended up being a nice bonus after the initial irritation.

qwer1234 (#4,140)

Ughgggggggghhhhhhhhhh I had one of these experiences too. Reading this piece and all the comments just made me so mad. I moved into a place, and the paint in the bathroom started puffing almost immediately. I complained to the landlord, and his response was that I was using the wrong shower head (the one that was already there when I moved in). So I bought a new shower head and changed it. Then the paint bubbles kept getting worse , and I got excuses such as, but not limited to, “you take too hot showers,” and “the bathroom is small, you need to shower with the door open” (there was a fan that worked, and I already did shower with the door open). At one point, some kind of inspector came through the building for something and that lit a fire under his ass to “fix” it. All he did was scrape it off and paint over it. It bubbled twice more with him painting over it, until I got home from a weekend away for a wedding to find my bathroom ceiling in my bathtub.

Frustrating enough, but I had been very sick all year, and after moving out post ceiling incident, I got much better. Turns out I’m one of those “canary in a coal mine” people for mold exposure. And I didn’t document a thing, because I’m a dummy.

I just realized that over the twelve years I have been living in apartments, my bathroom ceiling (in various places) has collapsed four times. Is every three years a normal rate of bathroom-ceiling collapsage, or do I just live in dumps?

I think you know the answer to this question.

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