It’s freezing. Your car tire blew out and so you had to get a new one so you can get to work, but you had to take that money out of the rent. You’ve been late with the rent a few times because the universe keeps throwing you these curve balls, like those three weeks you couldn’t work with pneumonia, and you’re working on a payment schedule for two back months. There’s a giant crumbling hole in your kid’s room from which old plaster dust keeps flaking. Your landlord is irked, so he turns the heat down to 50 degrees to edge you and the kids out. Now what?
Your property taxes went up, again. Central Hudson hiked its rates again. It seems like your tenant always has a story when it comes time to collect the rent. You’re dipping into your own money to make the payments. This time, she blew her car tire out and needed to replace it. She still owes a few months back rent, and there’s a crumbling hole in the wall from where her kid kicked a ball through it. She won’t leave, even though she’s on a month-to-month lease. Now what?
There are a lot of misconceptions about how to handle tenant-landlord disputes. Slightly more than 50 percent of Kingston’s residents are renters, and we’re not even a college town. Many renters say they are victims of absent landlords, slumlords, unknowledgeable, uncompassionate, cheapskate or vindictive landlords. Landlords complain they are constantly shafted and must chunk out for legal fees to evict deadbeat tenants and for judgments on damages for monies they will never see. If your landlord doesn’t make a repair, can you withhold the rent? If your tenant just won’t leave after months and months of not paying, can’t you just empty their stuff out of their apartment?
Julie Miranda of Kingston said the landlord of her Uptown apartment building made promises two years ago to tenants about “safety, clean environment and comfortable surrounding.” Miranda said that she felt Uptown has since changed, and there are many more drug dealers are in the area. “For the past 11 months, I’ve had to deal with possible drug dealers and prostitutes out my window for the neighbor above me, and I have made many complaints about this issue with the landlord and the police,” said Miranda. “The landlord said he would do something about that, but hasn’t.” Miranda said that’s not her only gripe. Hot water is another ongoing battle. “Another issue is the roach infestation within the building, to which my landlord said that the property owner doesn’t feel the need to do anything due to other tenants’ unpaid rent,” said Miranda. “I believe if things were done correctly on his part that people would respect him as we would like to be respected and acknowledged as humans who want to live in a safe and clean environment for our children and ourselves. I can’t speak for everyone though. I speak for myself and my children.” Miranda said the only time she hears from her landlord is when he’s collecting rent or showing the property to investors. She has contemplated warning the investors, but fears retribution.
Peter Frank, attorney for Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, says his organization of three attorneys fight to extend tenant occupancy, improve their housing conditions and to prevent groundless or improper evictions for those at or below 120 percent of the poverty level. Tenants consider Legal Services of the HudsonValley a blessing, since a single person who makes up to $18,000 or a family of four with income up to $40,000 can have legal representation for free. Frank and his colleagues are often the only line of defense for those most vulnerable — single mothers, the disabled or the elderly. Legal Services represents roughly 500 eviction cases every year in Ulster County, more than half in the City of Kingston. He said many of his clients have month-to-month rental agreements and get by on fixed incomes, so when one thing goes wrong in their lives, it snowballs quickly.
“There’s a limit to what [those on subsidized, disability or fixed incomes] can earn,” said Frank. “So if they are confronted with an unusual expense like car repairs, and they take that money from their rent, they find it difficult to make it up. If they are in a month-to-month, the landlord tends to evict them. That’s who we see mostly in housing court —single moms, disabled, etc.”
Frank said clients walk in with common misperceptions that require immediate clarification. “If a landlord says you have to move out because you haven’t paid the rent, that’s illegal,” said Frank. “Only after a judge issues a Warrant of Eviction, and after you have been served with warrant, can you be evicted.” First, the landlord must notify the tenant in writing of their intention to evict, in either a three-day or 30-day notice. A three-day notice means you have not paid your rent and you must pay up or you’re going to court, in which case Frank advises you call the landlord and try to work it out. Rural Ulster Preservation Corporation, Family of Woodstock, Catholic Charities and Department of Social Services are all resources up-against-it renters can tap.
A 30-day notice is issued with one full month from date of notice; the landlord can start an eviction case to remove you from home. Frank said it’s not necessarily immediate, however for those with a monthly lease, it’s time-imminent. For example, said Frank, if it’s issued March 30, it cannot be brought to court until May 1. “If you have gotten a termination notice in March, you probably have until the end of May to find new housing,” he said. Then court, and it can take a few days to get on the schedule. Frank scours for any loophole: improperly executed notice, paperwork typo, anything. Once the judge signs the final eviction notice, it is sent to the Ulster County Sheriff’s Civil Division; a deputy will serve the final 72-hour vacate notice. Once a tenant is served, they have three days to pay it, return to court or vacate. If they have not vacated, deputies will return and physically remove them.
Must maintain services
Frank also warned landlords that it is illegal to deny anyone heat, hot water or electricity in order to evict them, a scenario he commonly sees. He advises tenants in such a position to call their municipality’s code enforcement or building inspector right away. In Kingston, he said, one should contact the Kingston Fire Department’s Building Safety Division. And if you have bugs, such as bed bugs, roaches or some other form of an unhealthy environment, it’s the Ulster County Department of Health.
“Don’t believe your landlord when he tells you not to go to court,” said Frank, in the event that a tenant is served an eviction notice. Even if the tenant has made arrangements with a housing agency and feels the issue is resolved, and the landlord says there’s no need to go to court … there’s a need, advised Frank. If you get served, Frank said to contact Legal Services and show up to court to prevent the judge from signing the final eviction notice.
Frank said he knows it’s a two-way street between tenants and landlords. He said if a tenant damages the property, it’s their responsibility to pay for it.
What’s a slumlord? “I would define a slumlord as someone who does not maintain is property, charges rent, and removes people when they ask to have their legal rights enforced,” said Frank, who added that most landlords he sees in court are good people, and will generally try to work with tenants to keep their housing.
Legal Services will not accept the case to take every case that walks through the door. “There are people who just don’t want to pay their rent,” said Frank. “We try to solve the problem for people who do want to pay their rent.”