A law that would bring new pressure on landlords to decide on the disposition of security deposits quickly will be the subject of a public hearing on September 13. If passed as is, the law would impose daily penalties on landlords who did not return security deposits and explain why they weren’t, within just a couple of weeks. Another clause would saddle the losing party with attorneys’ fees if the question was brought to court.
Landlords are already entitled under state law to retain part of that deposit as reimbursement for repairs beyond reasonable wear and tear, as well as unpaid rent and utilities and certain other expenses; this law, drafted by village attorney Will Frank, reaffirms that. According to the Tenants’ Rights Guide available for free at the state attorney general’s web site, “To avoid any disputes, the tenant should thoroughly inspect the apartment with the landlord before moving in and document any preexisting conditions. Upon vacating, the tenant should leave the apartment in clean condition, removing all personal belongings and trash from the apartment, and making any minor repairs needed.” Security deposits, together with an itemized list of deductions, should be forwarded within a “reasonable time” after the lease ends, “whether or not the tenant asks for its return.”
What’s different in this village proposal is defining that reasonable period of time as 14 days, and setting ever-increasing penalties for failing to do so. If it’s delivered a week or less after that 14-day grace period, the penalty would be 25% of the original security deposit, per day. In the following week, the penalties would be 50% for each additional day, and it goes up in similar increments each week until a cap of 150% of the security deposit per day is reached. A tenant who received neither a check nor an itemized list could go to court to compel the landlord to produce one or the other, and presumably the landlord would face those significant penalties unless proof was at hand that the check, or itemized list, were in the mail in a timely manner. The landlord without proof would also be liable for attorneys’ fees, as would the tenant if a judge found that the landlord had followed the law.
Celeste Tesoriero, whose outspoken advocacy on these issues spurred the drafting of the new law, has in the past pointed out that there are costs above and beyond hiring of an attorney which make going to court difficult for tenants in New Paltz, many of whom are former college students now living out of the area. Under the principle of being able to face one’s accuser, if the tenant doesn’t show up in person, New Paltz justices are likely to throw the case out. It’s also relatively easy to secure an adjournment, but the other party may not know about it before they take time from work and return to their college town to appear.
It was the attorneys’ fees that got Tesoriero up to speak at the August 23 village board meeting, however. Maintaining that such a requirement would be disproportionately burdensome on members of racial minorities, she announced that should the law be passed with that clause in place, she would sue the village in federal court, which she predicted would be a long and costly process for taxpayers to fund.
Responding to an earlier concern Tesoriero raised — that the draft should be reviewed by a landlord-tenant attorney — village officials asked the two town justices, James Bacon and Jonathan Katz, if they would comment on it. Both declined, Mayor Tim Rogers said, advising that it was not appropriate for them to “get involved” in local legislation. Rogers instead doubled down on his position that having it vetted by Frank, “who is a real lawyer” and a specialist in municipal law, was sufficient. Neither Rogers nor any of the trustees have suggested referring the draft to a landlord-tenant attorney from outside the community, as Tesoriero has suggested.
Deputy mayor KT Tobin observed that she does “expect revisions” after hearing what’s said at the September 13 public hearing.