They Wanted the Apartment. Then the Broker Asked for a $2,850 Fee.

State lawmakers in New York sent shock waves through the real estate industry last year, passing sweeping rent laws to protect tenants.

But the laundry list of changes, covering everything from application fees to security deposits, also created significant confusion.

Then came more upheaval: The state unexpectedly announced last month that the laws also barred tenants from having to pay a broker fee on rentals, only to have a judge, days later, temporarily block the ruling.

The whirlwind has left many tenants mystified and they say vulnerable to brokers and landlords who have taken advantage of the uncertainty.

They have charged unsuspecting tenants application fees that far exceed a new $20 cap. They have demanded security deposits equal to multiple months’ rent when they are now limited to a one-month maximum.

During the brief window when the broker-fee ruling was in effect, brokers and landlords deployed another tactic. Some insisted that it was only a suggestion, not the law. They falsely claimed it did not apply to leases under a year. One listing in Brooklyn advertised no broker fee, but said the application fee was $800.

Disclosures suddenly appeared at the bottom of listings on StreetEasy and Craigslist: This broker represents the tenant, meaning a broker could still collect fees, which can be up to 15 percent of the annual rent.

When Raissa Carpenter and her partner viewed an apartment in early February after the broker-fee ruling, the current tenant gave them a tour. They submitted an application with the broker listed on StreetEasy. The agent accepted it, but with a counteroffer.

“He then suggested we hire him so that it would be legal for him to charge us a fee,” Ms. Carpenter said.

Having read about the state’s recent ruling, they refused. The broker told them the tenant now no longer wanted to move. A short time later, the unit reappeared on StreetEasy.

Other tenants said they were asked to sign an “Agent Disclosure Form” stating that they had hired a broker even if they had not.

“I knew this was a not-so-sly stunt to work around the new law,” said a tenant who signed a lease that had been edited to highlight that the broker was working for her, resulting in a $4,320 commission.

“We were pressured to sign and pay the fee,” said the renter, who agreed to share her story on the condition of anonymity.

The new rent laws blindsided the real estate industry, which has warned that the heralded benefits will ultimately hurt tenants. The changes discourage property owners from making repairs and upgrades, real estate groups have said, and have caused tremendous stress for tens of thousands of brokers now worried about how they can make a living.

They have also threatened the livelihoods of landlords, especially mom-and-pop owners who operate with razor-thin profit margins and may be unable to fix dilapidated housing, according to trade organizations.

Despite robust criticism of the new laws by the Real Estate Board of New York, the powerful lobbying group known as REBNY, the organization has urged its members to obey the rules.

“We encourage all real estate licensees to follow the law,” said James Whelan, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents landlords, developers and brokers. “REBNY conducts extensive trainings and outreach to ensure that our members are up-to-date on all laws.’’

The far-reaching overhaul to New York’s rent laws has been heralded by housing activists as a significant victory for renters and has made the state a national leader in protecting tenants. There are signs it is already shifting the landscape, such as reducing evictions in the city.

The laws, delivered by a Democratic takeover in Albany, marked a momentous shift in power away from the powerful real estate industry.

With the ascent of progressive Democrats, the pendulum was pushed decidedly in favor of renters.

But in practice, it has not always worked out that way.

Unlike any other American city, brokers in New York City wield near monopolistic power over the rental market. They control listings, viewings and signings, and the new laws did not chip away at the brokers’ stranglehold.

That quickly became clear to Madeline Anthony and her boyfriend, Morgan Hirsh, in late December.

After looking at a one-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, they told the landlord’s broker that they were ready to submit an application. It required a $5,700 payment to cover the first month’s rent and a security deposit, both of which are standard in leases and still allowed under the new rules.

But the landlord imposed another demand: a deposit for the final month’s rent, raising the total to $8,550. However, the rent laws clearly state that a deposit cannot include both last month’s rent and a security payment.

“Doesn’t it matter that it’s illegal?” Ms. Anthony asked the landlord’s broker, citing the new laws.

“The thing is, there are some gray areas,” the broker, Tal Mucktar-Barnes, said, according to a recording of the call shared with The New York Times. “I deal with many, many different landlords around the city, and some of them are preferring to stick in their current ways.”

Mr. Mucktar-Barnes, who is not a member of the Real Estate Board of New York, did not respond to several phone calls and emails seeking comment.

The 74-page housing legislation contains an assortment of complex changes, some of which apply only to rent-regulated units and not market-rate rentals. But on the issue of security deposits, there is no gray area.

There are other clear-cut rules. Rents cannot increase more than $50 without at least one month’s notice. A fee for a late rent payment cannot be more than $50. And security deposits must be returned within two weeks of moving out.

But in New York’s hypercompetitive rental market, landlords and brokers maintain the upper hand since they often they receive multiple applications for a listing.

“When you are looking for housing, you are not in a position to be citing the legislation to a broker or prospective landlord and that you demand they follow the law,” said Marika Dias, director of the Tenant Rights Coalition at Legal Services NYC.

Many renters eager to find a place to live say they feel just as powerless as before the laws were passed.

“I knew if I complained about the fee, I would simply be skipped over,” said Drew Flannelly, who paid $100 to apply for a one-bedroom apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which he did not get.

Michael Heusner, who recently rented an apartment in Brooklyn, said he felt the same way after a broker at Brookly Rentals told him the application fee was $100.

“I didn’t want to risk not getting the apartment despite knowing the law,” Mr. Heusner said.

Ira Isaac, an agent at Brookly Rentals, confirmed the company’s policy of a $100 fee but said it was legal. Last year’s law allowed brokers to exceed the $20 application fee limit if tenants hired them to help find an apartment.

Mr. Isaac said Brookly Rentals rewrote its lease applications to include a new disclosure, tucked in the many pages on which renters mark their initials but may not read carefully, stating that applicants had hired the company.

“Tenants employ us,” said Mr. Isaac, who is not a member of the Real Estate Board of New York. “The new law is putting it out there that all brokers can only charge $20, but they are not giving the other half of the story.”

Tenants safely in a new home can go after negligent brokers and landlords in court to try to enforce the laws. But prospective renters are at a disadvantage.

Catherine S., who spoke on the condition of not using her last name, said she tried to rent an apartment she had found on Zillow, and asked the broker on the listing whether the landlord would be paying the broker fee. She cited the law and sent the broker a copy of the state’s broker-fee ruling.

“I’m not getting into a debate over this,” the broker replied in a text message, which was provided to The Times. “I’ll find someone else.”

An analysis by, a housing data and listings site, found that in the week after the broker-fee ruling was published but before the judge stopped it, the asking price increased on 438 apartments across the city. In the three months before then, an average of 55 apartments increased their prices every week, said.

Ms. Anthony and Mr. Hirsh, in multiple phone calls with their broker, stressed that they wanted to apply as “law-abiding citizens.” They explained the law, including that multiple security deposits for an apartment had been outlawed.

In the end, the couple told the broker they would apply for the unit in Williamsburg, but would only pay $5,700, not the $8,550 that included the extra deposit.

Mr. Mucktar-Barnes, the broker, warned them of the consequences.

“If I go and start arguing about the upfront costs right now, it’s very likely that they already have someone else applying and it won’t work out in our favor,” he said.

That is exactly what happened. The unit was awarded to someone else. Ms. Anthony said she walked away from the situation incredibly frustrated.

“The first step is to stand up to landlords who refuse to obey laws,” she said in an email, “and who are/have always been the ones with power in this city.”

Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting.

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