Advocate: Landlords devastated by pandemic eviction moratorium

A sign reminding passersby to support small landlords is seen on the front lawn of 305-307 Front St. in Schenectady on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

A sign reminding passersby to support small landlords is seen on the front lawn of 305-307 Front St. in Schenectady on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

SCHENECTADY — Chris Morris, president of the Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change, said the state’s extension of an eviction moratorium through August is devastating to landlords in the city.

During SLIC’s virtual meeting Wednesday, Morris said the organization had campaign signs printed that call for entities to “support small landlords.”

She asked the assembled landlords to put the signs on their lawns — but not on their rental properties so that no one can suggest that they are shaming tenants who haven’t paid them for months on end.

“It’s not a big thing,” Morris told a reporter. “But we have to react to this devastation, this furthering of this moratorium. It’s something we have to voice.”

On the other side of the crisis, where cash-strapped households are struggling to pay rent, Schenectady Tenants Association president Deborah Rembert said she continues to receive a flood of calls from people who say they can’t afford to pay their landlords.

Rembert said her message remains consistent:

“Try to stay in your residential situation, because where are you going?”

The pandemic has resulted in 1 million lost jobs in New York as a result of lockdowns and collapses in tourism and business activity.

Said Rembert: “How do you expect people to pay their rent, if they’ve lost their job and have no income coming in?”

But at the same time, Rembert said she felt sorry for the landlords, to some extent.

“I know that they have bills to pay too,” she said, adding that she’s telling tenants to pay whatever portion of rent that they can manage.

Rembert suggests that some landlords have brought issues on themselves. She said she is representing one particular tenant who’s engaged in a legal battle with a landlord who she said refuses to provide the tenant a copy of the rental lease.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended the statewide eviction moratorium Tuesday. The following day, a judge’s overthrow of a federal eviction moratorium had no effect on New York’s extension of its own moratorium, which was enacted in December and extended to Aug. 31 by the state Legislature.

“As we approach the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, it is critical that we continue to protect both New York’s tenants and business owners who have suffered tremendous hardship throughout this entire pandemic,” Cuomo said.

The legislation places a moratorium on residential evictions for tenants who have endured COVID-related hardship. Tenants must submit a hardship declaration, or a document explaining the source of the hardship, to prevent evictions. Landlords can evict tenants that are creating safety or health hazards for other tenants, and those tenants who do not submit hardship declarations.

Cuomo first announced the state moratorium on residential and commercial evictions on March 20, 2020.

State Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, was vehemently opposed to extending the moratorium. The local legislator told the Schenectady landlords he is working on two bills to support landlords impacted by the pandemic — a property tax extension to allow municipalities to grant small landlords an additional 180 days after the end of the declared pandemic to pay their property taxes if a tenant has not paid rent, and emergency rental relief to specifically assist landlords who did not qualify or do not have qualifying tenants for the first rent relief program under federal law.

Some landlords in Schenectady and across the country have reported defaulting on their property taxes because of drastic reductions in rental income coming in.

But in Schenectady, their troubles haven’t had a negative impact on the city’s year-over-year balance sheet.

Schenectady’s bureau of receipts showed property tax collection has so far remained relatively steady. The amount of 2021 tax levy collected as of May 1 was $15.3 million, or 49.2% of the levy, compared to $14.2 million or 47.2% of the levy received May 1, 2020, and $14.9 million or 48.9% received in May 2019.

New York is slotted to receive a $2.3 billion share of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program the U.S. Department of the Treasury launched to assist households that are unable to pay rent and utilities due to the pandemic. The money is to be divided among counties.

The program is for renters in households with an income below 80 percent of the area median income. A household member must have had a reduction of income or other financial hardship due to the pandemic.

Schenectady County’s median household income in 2019 was $65,499.

Households will receive up to 12 months of assistance, plus another three months if the grantee determines the extra months are needed to ensure housing stability.

In addition to rent and rent arrearage, the money can be used for utilities and home energy costs.

Locally, the Schenectady Community Action Program is the lead agency to offer support services to assist residents/landlords in using the web based system. Last week, Donna Gonzalez, SCAP’s coordinator of housing and community services, participated in the Schenectady landlord group’s virtual meeting.

Gonzalez said she hopes the emergency rental assistance money would be received by New York counties by the end of May.

One potential issue, Gonzalez said, is whether the portal will be able to handle the demands of customers coming in daily for the program, which is first-come, first-serve, with priority given to the poorest residents.

Further, Gonzalez said guidelines and restrictions aren’t fully known because they change by the day.

“One thing we do know is it’s going to start with customers or tenants who are at 0 to 30% of (the area median income),” Gonzalez said.

Another concern is whether there will be enough money for people whose earnings are closer to 80% of the AMI, Gonzalez said.

The SCAP coordinator said she would reach out to the landlord group to let it know when the Emergency Rental Assistance Program funding becomes available.

“We need to start getting some rent relief,” Gonzalez told the landlords.

Thus far, local money for rental assistance has been limited.

Schenectady’s development office has received and administered approximately $2.1 million in two rounds of federal CARES Act funding. It’s been used for rental assistance, homelessness prevention, rapid re-housing and emergency shelter to prevent, prepare and respond to the pandemic, according to the city.

During the same landlord group meeting, Schenectady Chief Building Inspector Chris Lunn and city director of diversity and affirmative action Ron Gardner expressed sympathy to the landlords.

Lunn addressed code violations. City data indicated a 15% increase in violations, with a nearly 14% reduction in overall complaints in Schenectady. But these variations aren’t considered related to the pandemic, according to the city.

Lunn told the landlords his office recently adopted a more lenient approach to property owners faced with less-severe code violations.

The office, he said, recently extended the time period by which an owner can remedy a notice of violation for non-life safety issues, from 30 days to 90 days.

For instance, if a rental property’s porch shows rotting, Lunn said, the city might yield the owner 90 days to pull a city permit, make plans to hire a contractor after bidding for the service, and get a bank loan.

The leniency is in view of the fact “a lot of people are living week to week, and, to find the revenue to make these repairs can be a struggle.”

Also, it’s harder to hire contractors right now because they are in high demand, Lunn said.

The level of communication between the property owner and city will be the most important aspect of making the remediation plan work, Lunn said, while noting violations for life-safety issues such as nonworking smoke and carbon monoxide detectors can’t be extended beyond a few days.

Lunn also told the landlords he’s an advocate for the three-party lease agreements between tenant, landlords and the city, meaning all three entities would inspect an apartment and take pictures to confirm the unit is in good condition.

When a landlord during the meeting suggested tenants aren’t following their contracts, Lunn said he could say the same of landlords.

“Landlords don’t follow the contracts,” he said. “… They don’t put (tenants) on notice when they do something wrong. The game is played in both directions. I try to stay in the middle but I see it every day.

“I see landlords ripping meters out of houses. I see tenants throwing bricks through windows. It goes both ways. But if the strength of your contract says, ‘If you remove a smoke detector, you need to put that smoke detector back, and if you don’t, then you’re being evicted,’ that’s the end of the game.”

Gardner suggested that the landlords use the city’s pool of contractors it works with through its workforce training program. This would be for smaller jobs, such as replacing a missing step on a porch or repairing chipped paint.

“We can do that as a training opportunity, to bring in a young person, to teach them how to make that type of repair,” Gardner said. “The contractor gets some experience in terms of doing business with the homeowner, and we build off relationships.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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