TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — New York state’s landlord-tenant laws had been stuck in place for several decades but got a significant overhaul in June. With the passage and implementation of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, renters will see expanded protections related to evictions, lease renewals, rent increases, security deposits, retaliation and breaking leases early.

According to Thomas Luckini, who recently joined Legal Assistance of Western New York’s Ithaca office as a supervising attorney specializing in housing issues, the status quo long tilted the rules in favor of landlords. Legislation passed in Albany earlier this summer is a step toward rebalancing the scales, Luckini said at a meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature’s Housing and Economic Development Committee on Monday.

“The most basic protection tenants are given under the new law is more time,” Luckini explained to legislators and county staff at the public meeting. Under the old rules, the eviction process for renters who were behind on payments could take as little as eight days from start to finish. Now, the process takes at least 24 days. Likewise, rules that made it possible for landlords to terminate leases or raise rent with little notice have been rewritten, giving tenants who are displaced more time to find alternatives.

While portions of the legislation directly benefit people at risk of eviction or in otherwise precarious housing situations, many provisions will expand protections for all renters. With about 70% of City of Ithaca households and more than 40% of households county-wide renter-occupied, the local impact will be significant. Here’s a quick breakdown of changes affecting Ithaca-area renters and landlords.

Evictions slowed down

Evictions for non-payment of rent will now take at least 24 calendar days, compared to eight under past law. The clock starts when a landlord issues a written notice of non-payment, and if the process results in a judge issuing a warrant of eviction, tenants will have 14 days from that point to move out. (In the past, law enforcement could show up 72 hours after a court issued a warrant to remove a tenant and their belongings.)

According to Luckini, the extra time can make the difference between a tenant being able to find alternate housing with the help of social service agencies or landing in an emergency shelter.

“Tenants just have a lot more time to secure housing, to find housing,” he said. “Hopefully fewer people will need emergency shelter services and the move-out process will be less traumatizing.”

Landlords who carry out so-called “self-help” evictions — for instance, locking out a tenant, shutting off utilities or removing their belongings — will face steeper penalties under the new law, too. Such practices used to be classified as violations, the lowest level of offense. They are now misdemeanors, carrying penalties of $1,000-10,000 and raising incentives for law enforcement and prosecutors to intervene.

In addition, the law now explicitly prohibits landlords from retaliating against tenants who lodge complaints. If a tenant raises concerns about a health or safety issue in their apartment, whether to their landlord or to a regulatory agency, they cannot be evicted as a consequence.

Finally, judges have new discretion to stay an eviction warrant — or prevent it from taking effect — if an eviction would cause a household significant hardship. If the tenant cannot find comparable housing in the same neighborhood, has a health issue, or has a child who needs specialized local services, for example, a judge can now delay an eviction for up to a year. If the eviction is on the basis that the renter is an “objectionable tenant,” however, the judge cannot issue a yearlong stay. A tenant who is being evicted for breaching their lease will be granted a 30-day period to remedy the breach, under the legislation.

Ending a lease or tenancy

If a landlord plans to end a tenancy by not renewing a month-to-month lease, the legislation requires them to give extra notice under the new law. Notice must be given 30 days in advance for tenants who have lived in a unit under a year, 60 days in advance for tenants for more than a year but less than two, and 90 days in advance for tenants of more than two years. This provision will take effect Oct. 11, 2019.

The same notice periods apply for rent increases of 5% or more, and notice must be in writing.

Conversely, if a tenant decides to move out earlier than the end of their lease term, their landlord now has a duty to try to fill the unit. In the past, if a tenant moved out partway into a lease they were responsible for finding a replacement (within the agreed-upon terms of their lease) or could be sued for the remaining months’ rent. Now, landlords need to make a good faith effort to find a new tenant if someone vacates early, listing the unit for either the initial rent or market rent — whichever is lower.

Security deposits and fees

In a change that will impact many Ithaca renters, security deposits are now capped at one month’s rent and will be easier to get back.

The burden used to be on tenants to prove that they were entitled to money back if landlords withheld all or some of their security deposit. Under the new rules, the burden is on landlords to prove that they’re entitled to a portion of the security deposit.

Landlords need to provide renters with an itemized list of deductions within 14 days of move-out. If they fail to, tenants are entitled to a full refund.

“This might seem like a small little thing, but its a big change for our clients’ lives,” Luckini said of the renters LawNY assists. “For many people, it symbolizes their entire savings,” he said.

Some fees are capped under the new law, too. Late fees are limited to 5% of monthly rent or $50, whichever is less. Application fees, including background and credit checks, are limited to $20 or the actual cost of the report, whichever is less. In a eviction proceeding, only “real rent” owed toward occupancy can be considered with regards to non-payment — not tacked on legal fees, late fees or other charges.

Landlords will also be legally required to provide receipts for rent payments, with penalties for non-compliance. The measure is meant to reduce erroneous or fraudulent late fees and non-payment claims, which Luckini said low-income renters who pay in cash or money orders commonly face.

Additional protections and next steps

The legislation also includes regulations on rent-to-own contracts in mobile and manufactured home parks, a rule prohibiting landlords from refusing to rent to someone on the sole basis that they’d been involved in a past eviction proceeding, and a rule prohibiting landlords from collecting attorney fees from tenants through summary judgments. As part of the state budget package passed earlier this year, the New York Legislature also outlawed housing discrimination on the basis of a person’s lawful source of income. In other words, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to someone because they plan to use Section 8 vouchers or other subsidies to cover their rent.

Going forward, changes in Albany have made it possible for municipalities in Tompkins County to consider adding local landlord-tenant regulations. Under the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, small counties and municipalities are allowed to implement rent stabilization laws if they demonstrate that there is a local housing emergency, including showing a local rental vacancy rate of less than 5%. If a municipality in Tompkins County were to pursue rent stabilization, the county legislature would work with the state legislature to establish a county rent guidelines board to set local regulations.

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.