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Suing Landlords Could Be Easier Under Bill

Legislation passed in the state Assembly this week would make it easier for tenants to take landlords to court.

A.354 was approved 100-49 by the state Assembly, though companion legislation hasn’t been approved by the state Senate. The Senate had until Thursday to do so before the end of the legislative session. Named the “Tenant Dignity and Safe Housing Act,” the proposal would create a new Article 7-C of the state Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law to allow tenants to bring a summary proceeding in a city, district or justice court while also directing the state Office of Court Administration to create simple forms petitioners may use to initiate the action while also directing court clerks to help tenants to help complete the form and serve notice of the petition. It requires local agencies that enforce housing standards receive a filed petition from the court.

Judgments in a summary proceeding initiated by tenants could include a monetary judgment, reduction in future rent until the issues have been fixed or any other relief courts deem just.

“What we’re trying to do here is the judge is going to take a look at the entire case,” said Assemblyman William Magnarelli, D-Syracuse. “This is something that a tenant has never been able to do, to put the case in front of the court for the first instance instead of waiting until the landlord decides the tenant should be evicted because the tenant isn’t paying rent due to all of the violations and the terrible conditions that the property is in. The bottom line here is that if the judge sees fit, he could order repairs, he could order a money judgment, he could order nonpayment of rent for the tenant to accumulate the money to make the repairs or any other relief the judge seems to feel is appropriate.”

Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, argued against the proposal, saying courts already have a Warrant of Habitability in current contract law that allows judges to modify rent if part of a housing unit isn’t usable because repairs are needed. Goodell also said the legislation gives judges too much power by giving judges the authority to require repairs even if the repairs will cost more than the housing unit is worth.

“That’s the extension of a law that goes too far in my opinion,” Goodell said. “I support my colleague’s desire to have a summary proceeding to allow tenants to get access to the courts quickly and easily to adjudicate what their set off may be under the warrant of habitability. And if the bill were limited to that I would be in support of it. This bill goes beyond that and authorizes the judge to order an apartment that my be decimated by fire or hurricane and order the landlord to fix the apartment, which goes far beyond what we have in current law.”

Goodell also pointed out the crunch landlords are feeling from the state Legislature. Earlier this year, the legislature passed the COVID-19 Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act extending the state’s moratorium on COVID-related evictions and foreclosures until Aug. 31. Moratoriums on residential and commercial evictions were first enacted by executive order in March 2020.

“Landlords are extraordinarily sensitive right now over the fact that we as a legislature have issued rent moratoriums that have gone on for a year and a half, so it’s ironic after a year and a half of a rent moratorium we are now being asked to allow tenants to bring an expedited procedure to get repairs done when it’s the very fact that we have given this rent moratorium for a year and a half which has crippled landlords’ cash flow in their ability to make repairs,” Goodell said. “We need a balanced approach. A balanced approach reflects an expedited process for tenants to get a Warrant of Habitability claim and reflects the fact that landlords are just under horrific financial pressure because of what has happened as a result of COVID.”

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