Landlords rally against eviction ban

ERICA MILLER/THE DAILY GAZETTE Landlords hold their signs outside the steps of Governor Andrew Cuomo's mansion on Eagle Street as landlords protest lifting the eviction ban in New York State in Albany on Thursday, February 18, 2021.

Landlords hold their signs outside the steps of Governor Andrew Cuomo's mansion on Eagle Street as landlords protest lifting the eviction ban in New York State in Albany on Thursday, February 18, 2021.

Dandeago “Romeo” Budhoo, owner of 18 rental units across 10 buildings, mostly in Mont Pleasant and Hamilton Hill neighborhoods of Schenectady, said he is owed about $30,000 in rent that should have been paid by now.

The landlord, a native of Guyana, said he has six delinquent tenants that won’t pay up, and there’s nothing he can do about it due to the moratoriums on evictions that were put in place due to the the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m being bullied by the tenants, and the police won’t help us,” he said. “Right now, one of the tenants parked their vehicle in front of the [building], and I need to get into that garage, and for almost a year he’s not moving it, and every time I ask him he wants to fight.”

Budhoo said without his rents he can’t pay all his property taxes. He said he’s now late on approximately $13,000 worth of property taxes for the fourth quarter of 2020, and he knows he’s not alone.

“I’m never ever late on taxes, but I couldn’t pay the taxes now,” he said. “Some of them are collecting unemployment, and they’re not giving me a dime, some are working and they won’t either. Some of my 12 paying tenants are behind, but I’m working with them. They give me $50 here, $100 there.”

Budhoo was one of approximately 40 people who attended a rally in front of the New York Executive Mansion — the official residence of Gov. Andrew Cuomo — in Albany on Thursday. The rally was aimed at drawing attention to the economic impact of the tenant eviction moratorium put in place by Cuomo on March 20, and extended Dec. 28 until at least May 1 of this year.

The eviction moratorium applies to all tenants without respect to employment or income status, but tenants directly suffering from financial hardship “during the COVID-19 public health emergency” are also protected under the state’s 2019 Tenant Safe Harbor Act until at least Jan. 1, 2021 thanks to an executive order issued by Cuomo.

“The Executive Order extends the protections of the Tenant Safe Harbor Act to eviction warrants that existed prior to the start of the pandemic, and those who are facing other than nonpayment evictions but suffering the same hardship,” reads a Dec. 28 statement from Cuomo’s office.

President Trump had also put in place a federal eviction moratorium and President Biden has extended it until March 31.

The landlord rally Thursday was coordinated by the NY Landlords Group, which also held a peaceful protest in front of Gracie Mansion, the New York City mayor’s residence, at the same time.

Dmitry Nozik, a New York City area landlord, is the cofounder of the NY Landlords Group. He said he’s been trying to unite upstate and downstate landlords into a group with about 2,000 members, hoping to get state and federal officials to reform the eviction moratorium and pandemic rent relief programs to get lost rent into the hands of landlords to help them pay their taxes and utilities and help them remove delinquent tenants.

Nozik said while he was in front Gracie Mansion on Thursday, he still was in close contact with landlords in Albany.

“Basically, we’re looking for rights for landlords, because with the moratorium it’s not fair for landlords because we’re not super-rich landlords like Donald Trump — we’re just regular landlords who are paying mortgages and property taxes and our tenants aren’t paying rent and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “In our group a lot of the members live in two-family units, where they live in one and rent out the other.”

Gloversville resident Tim Fonda, president of the Fulton County Landlords Association, helped organize the Albany rally. (Fonda is the former managing editor of The Leader-Herald, and the former Saratoga County editor for the Daily Gazette.) He said a significant portion of his income comes from 10 rental units he owns in Fulton County.

Fonda said he’s been luckier than most landlords because he had a tenant who owed him $4,000, but he was able to evict the person in December.

“I got lucky because it was in this perfect window of opportunity to get it done before the court system got shut down again,” he said. “I lost quite a bit of money there, which you know I’ll never recoup. That’s the other thing, when the politicians say ‘Well the tenants still owe that money’ — yeah, they still owe it — but we’re never going to see it. They’re never going to be able to come up with $10,000, when this is all over. We can try to take legal action to recoup it, but in reality it’s not going to happen.”

Scope of unpaid rent

In October, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia published a study, using data from payrolls, joblessness and unemployment insurance claims data to estimate how many U.S. households are behind on rent. According to a report, by December about 4.2 percent of all renters, 1.34 million renter households, owed roughly $7.2 billion, an average of $5,400.

Fonda said he decided to organize the first Fulton County Landlords Association because he perceived a growing problem of unpaid rent in the high-poverty rural county. He said the group has about 35 members, many of whom own between 5 and 15 units.

“It’s hard to say, but most of them, I think, are struggling with about 20 to 30 percent who are not paying the rent,” Fonda said.

Debbie Pusatere, president of the New York Capital Region Apartment Association, said she was unable to go to the rally in Albany Thursday because she was in a “Zoom meeting” dealing with delinquent tenants. She said of her 68 rental units about 15 are delinquent since the eviction moratorium, costing her “more than $100,000” in rental revenue for 2020.

“Of those 15, only 2 are truly COVID-19 affected, and those two — whenever they come across even $10 they give it to me — as opposed to the others who just don’t pay, and don’t communicate at all,” she said.

Pusatere said she had to borrow against the value of her home in 2020 to pay her property taxes, which she said is “the biggest theft of income” in New York state, costing about 30 percent of landlords’ rental income.

“The state doesn’t realize they’re destroying the small landlords, such as myself, who have no other source of income besides.” she said. “Right now, as of Feb. 18, I am down $66,956 out of 61 apartments, and I’ve got 7 vacancies,” she said. “I’ve had so many people, since last year, just leave. They start looking for other apartments, and they just move, owing me $10,000, $20,000 — I will never get that money back.”

Both the $2.2 trillion U.S. CARES Act passed in March and $900 billion worth of COVID-19 economic relief spending — attached to the $1.4 trillion 2021 omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in December — included rent relief money for New York state, but many landlords complain the programs have been too cumbersome to navigate and rely on cooperative renters who have no, or little, incentive to apply for the funds.

The U.S. CARES Act included $100 million in rental relief assistance, but it could only be accessed by counties with more than 200,000 residents. By December about $60 million worth of the relief was still available, and only an executive order from Cuomo kept the money from being returned to the federal government.

The December COVID-19 relief bill included $25 billion in rental assistance, of which New York state is expected to get $1.3 billion, but the money is only helpful to current tenants who apply for it whom qualify with income levels not exceeding 80 percent of their local area’s median income level and can show at least one member of the rental unit’s household is either eligible for unemployment insurance or has lost income or has had significant expenses due to the pandemic and can demonstrate the risk of homelessness without the money.

“It has to be a current tenant who is willing to fill out all of the ungodly paperwork and jump through hoops, which my tenants aren’t going to do,” Pusatere said.

Pent up evictions

Matthew Lyman, president of Ideal Legal Support Services LLC, said his company has “facilitated thousands and thousands of evictions across the Capital Region over more than 30 years over 1,500 clients, many of them in Schenectady.” He’s also the host of a YouTube channel called the “Landlord Advocates.”

Lyman said he’s not sure how Fonda was able to get a tenant evicted in Fulton County, because in the other counties of the Capital Region, including Schenectady, Albany and Rensselaer, he’s been unable to get the sheriff’s departments to serve court issued eviction warrants.

“We were able to get some cases into court in September and October and a few [eviction warrants] signed by judges, but we can’t get them executed,”  he said. “But we have warrants from as far back as February 2020 that have yet to be executed for our clients, and the tenants are still living there, about five or six because the sheriff’s have told us they aren’t executing any warrants until, could be, May or June of this year.”

Lyman said he has 150 eviction cases filed in Schenectady City Court currently, but Cuomo’s Dec. 28 executive order mandates either the courts or the landlords provide tenants with a “Declaration of Hardship” form that could neutralize any eviction action until Jan. 2021.

“These tenants are going to sign them, we believe every tenant will,” he said. “We are even telling our landlords to not even bother starting the non-payment 14-day notice to tenants, because we must, by law, give them a Declaration of Hardship, because they’re going to sign them.”

Lyman, who is not a lawyer but employs two of them to provide services to the clients of his company, said his business has built up list of about 300 eviction cases not worth filing until at least May 1.

He said he’s concerned about the “diabolical scenario” of some tenants potentially attempting to extort cash payments from landlords in exchange for filing for state and federal pandemic rent relief. He said officials need to reform the rental relief to provide a way for the landlords to demonstrate losses and access the money directly.

Fonda said he agrees.

“The aid should be direct to the landlords,” he said. “This aid isn’t going to work well, because the tenants who are affected don’t really have an incentive to go through the process of applying. The landlords should be the ones applying for this money and then get it verified through the tenants, because the landlords have the incentive.”

Fonda said as long as the eviction moratorium is in place he has no incentive to fill his vacant rental unit.

“I don’t want to fill it. I really don’t, and a lot of the landlords are telling me the same thing — that they have vacancies and they’re afraid to try to rent to anyone right now,” he said. “So, again it’s a disservice to tenants, because they’re finding a very hard time finding a place to live right now, because the landlords are scared because there is no legal process to evict. How can rent out apartments when there is no legal process to protect you?”

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