Under the Warranty of Habitability law in New York State, tenants are entitled to safe and decent living accommodations. This provision is applicable whether or not you have a lease.
When you need repairs, or certain defective conditions have to be corrected, make your request to the landlord in writing. If the landlord does not respond and you end up in court later, you will have proof that he or she was aware of the problem, but willfully refused to make the repair. Send several letters if necessary, and keep copies.
If the repairs are necessary but simple, or not that expensive, such as repairing a lock, you may need to do it yourself or hire someone to do it, if the landlord doesn't act. If you elect to go this route, notify the landlord in advance of your intention to correct the condition, and mention that you'll be deducting the cost from the rent. Do it in writing. If the landlord doesn't reply in an appropriate amount of time, send a follow-up letter, unless the situation in urgent.
If you still don't get a response, do the work and get receipts for labor and parts. When you pay your next rent, send a letter explaining what you did and include copies of the receipts. The costs need to be reasonable.
Alternatively, to get repairs in New York City, suing your landlord in Housing Court or in an HP Proceeding can be very effective.
Generally, if you've had problems with the landlord, anticipate them, or aren't getting adequate response, then even with small repairs it's a good idea to speak with a Tenants' attorney first, before making any alterations.
Keep in mind that if you or your repair person damage the apartment in the act of making these corrections, you could have legal liability. In either instance, the landlord may sue to evict you anyway. However, you can raise defenses with the paper trail you show the judge, if you've documented the ignored requests for repairs, and the reasonable costs you sustained for making the necessary adjustments.
For repairs of a more serious nature, that involve building systems or that may pose a health or safety risk, you're best off consulting a Tenants' lawyer before taking any action. Withholding rent may be an option, but can jeopardize your tenancy, especially if you don't have a solid case and proper representation.
Usually, it's best to avoid altering anything in your apartment, leaving the responsibility to the landlord, but in some situations this may not be possible.
Attention New York City Tenants: See this new page that has just been added to the McAdams Law main site on Bad Conditions .