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Landlords from Schenectady, elsewhere in state, fret over strengthened tenants rights

Landlords from Schenectady, elsewhere in state, fret over strengthened tenants rights

State law going into effect
Landlords from Schenectady, elsewhere in state, fret over strengthened tenants rights
Local landlord Nic Ltaif talks about new tenants rights bill.

SCHENECTADY — Big changes are dramatically reshaping the rental industry.

A series of new provisions that went into effect in June have reshaped eviction rules statewide, and several components being phased in next week will give tenants more time before they can be evicted.

Among the biggest changes:

  • Tenants facing eviction now have 14 days to vacate instead of 72 hours.
  • Landlords must give written notice for eviction proceedings.
  • Eviction proceedings can be stopped once the tenant pays the full amount of past-due rent.
  • Criminal background and credit check fees are now limited to $20.
  • Either party now can now request eviction trials to be adjourned for two weeks.
  • Landlords are prohibited from using a tenant’s previous evictions or landlord-tenant disputes against them.
  • Court records relating to evictions from foreclosed properties are now sealed.
  • Landlords must provide at least 30 days eviction notice to tenants who have occupied units for one year; 60 days for two years, and 90 days for three years.
  • Landlords can be charged with a misdemeanor for unlawful evictions.
  • Landlords are now barred from blacklisting tenants based on their past rental history.

While tenant advocates say the reforms bring much-needed sense of parity to court proceedings, landlords contend they’re being squeezed on both sides of the rental process, making it more difficult to screen for troublesome tenants and harder to dislodge them.

NO INPUT

Chris Morris, director of Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change (SLIC), said while the group is continuing to sift through the provisions, many strike them as deeply problematic. 

“From one day to the next, it just got dumped on us,” Morris said.

Morris, a property manager for a 12-unit Schenectady apartment building, said the new rules will only place an increased burden on small-scale landlords who rely on their rental units for income and simply want decent tenants who pay their rent on time. 

The reforms were part of a broader package long proposed by New York City affordable housing advocates to address housing inequality and rising rental costs. 

A key provision is closing a series of loopholes used by landlords to hike rents at rent-controlled apartments.

Kim Scannell, a legal secretary with the Juda Law Office, which represents landlords in eviction proceedings, called those elements “reasonable.” 

But they largely apply to New York City, she said, and the law appears to have been drafted with little input from upstate landlords.

“There should have been discussion before it was rammed down landlords’ throats,” said attorney Mark Juda.

ADDING BALANCE

Tenants right advocates believe the new rules provide a much-needed sense of balance.

“The law enhances our ability to ensure our clients are treated fairly,” said Robert Romaker, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, which provides legal counsel to tenants in eviction proceedings. “It makes the system more fair from our perspective for tenants, especially low-income tenants.”

Last year, the office worked on 600 cases affecting 1,450 people in Schenectady, and represents an average of between 12 to 15 clients a month in court.

Cases in city eviction court appear to have taken a nosedive this year. 

There were 1,203 landlord-tenant summary judgments in City Court between June 1 and Sept. 30, 2018.

Those numbers have dropped to 478 during the same time period this year. 

Romaker acknowledged the new law lengthens court proceedings, but said it doesn’t necessarily equate to increased difficulty for the majority of cases.

And while the reforms strengthen tenants rights, the new law does not address the disparity in legal services: landlords are generally represented by counsel, while tenants are not, he said.

Courts can now also consider hardship when deciding to grant stays or setting the length of eviction proceedings, including health, a child’s school enrollment or “any other extenuating life circumstances.”

Evictions are disruptive, Romaker said, and can create a ripple effect with ramifications throughout society, especially when children are involved. 

“It has a devastating impact on families,” he said. 

He welcomed the strengthened safeguards for hardship cases, citing a client he represented last year who was facing eviction for missing his rent payment by one day while battling stage 4 cancer. 

“This new law will help those situations,” Romaker said. “This gives the court more discretion to fashion a fairer remedy than summary issuing an order of eviction for someone who is dying and undergoing chemotherapy.”

Landlords also have chafed over their inability to have access to the so-called “blacklists.” 

“I’m assuming we won’t be able to do that anymore,” Morris said. 

But Romaker said relying on those lists to screen tenants is unfair because the records do not represent how the cases were ultimately decided. 

Many filings are ultimately baseless, he said. 

“If a landlord filed eviction proceedings, their name would go on the list for someone not to rent to, which was terribly unfair,” he said. “Some people didn’t do anything wrong, yet their name is still on the list.” 

Landlords remain free to screen tenants by conducting background checks and personal references, he said.

EXODUS?

Morris said she doesn’t like to evict anyone because it’s disruptive and costly, and landlords typically reserve that option for only the worst tenants. 

But the inability to remove a tenant is a significant hardship, she said, and an extended timeframe will result in legal fees and other costs stacking up. 

Nic Ltaif, a Schenectady landlord, said that extended window may give angry tenants more time to damage property.

And he feared a dragged-out process will hamper his ability to generate revenue, which is used to pay property taxes. 

“If you’re late, there are no rules for the city to be lenient if you don’t pay your taxes,” he said.

Ltaif and other SLIC members also predicted the new laws will be so onerous, landlords will want to exit the industry. 

He said he’s already converted one unit into an Airbnb. 

Other landlords may walk away from properties entirely, which the group believes may accelerate the deterioration of housing stock and lead to more of the zombie homes upstate cities are trying to stamp out. 

“I don’t think it’s reasonable people would want to be a landlord in this environment,” Juda said.

Romaker disagreed, and said the laws would ultimately lead to more housing stability. 

“I don’t think landlords are going to leave industries in droves,” he said. “That sounds like an alarmist reaction to me.”

SEEKING A STRATEGY 

SLIC has formed a task force to spread awareness and educate landlords about the new law, and sent a delegation to Turning Stone Casino last month to discuss lobbying strategies and organize with their counterparts across the state as part of the “Upstate New York Unify Landlords” movement. 

Ltaif said more knowledge is better for everyone, and SLIC isn’t against tenants rights. 

“We need to find the best way to make it work for landlords and tenants,” he said.

State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, too, said he’s not opposed to safeguarding tenants rights, but struggled to find a positive element of the legislation. 

“I find it hard to find anything positive by what they put in place here,” he said. “We’ve been hearing a truckload from our landlords.”

Tedisco wondered if the reforms would ultimately boomerang back and result in less affordable housing as landlords bow out.

He said he met with SLIC to discuss legislative strategies, but said big changes may be difficult with full Democratic control of state government. 

“We don’t have much to stop them,” Tedisco said. “We’re going to try the best we can to repeal and replace it with something that makes a bit more sense.”

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