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

by Joshua Michtom

One 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.

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