September 16, 2004

Assistant Attorney General Speaks on Housing Issues

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Lessees and property owners had an opportunity to learn more about housing law at a presentation sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension yesterday at their Tompkins County branch at 11:00 a.m. The event, “Landlord/Tenant Rights and Responsibilities,” featured Michael J. Danaher, New York State assistant attorney general.

Danaher discussed leases, security deposits and evictions for just over an hour. With examples and illustrative anecdotes, he helped the audience make sense of potentially challenging legal concepts. Danaher emphasized that he does not advocate for landlords or tenants; rather, he champions a shared respect for the law.

“I am not in favor of tenants, and I am not in favor of landlords,” Danaher said. “What I am in favor of is that tenants know what their obligations are, and that they be protected in those obligations.”

Danaher summarized what rights landlords have to security deposits. If a property owner decides not to return a renter’s deposit, he or she must establish that the property has been damaged, that the damage is not a result of reasonable wear and tear and that the lessee is responsible.

Danaher emphasized that security deposits are to be used only to protect a landlord’s investment. Throughout the rental period, the security deposit should remain in an escrow account.

“He can’t commingle [the security deposit] with his other funds,” Danaher said. “And the interest must be credited to the tenant.”

As a precaution, Danaher suggested that tenants should inventory their rented property and document its condition.

“Take a video of the place when you go in,” Danaher said. “And take a video of the place just as you’re going out.”

New York State law demands that landlords return security deposits in “a reasonable amount of time.” Danaher informed the audience that an Ithaca town ordinance requires landlords to refund tenants more quickly; security deposits must be returned within 30 days of a lease’s expiration date.

During his talk, Danaher advised renters and property-owners not to form oral agreements. He encouraged landlords to construct leases carefully, and urged lessees to read rental agreements closely.

“If it is in the written lease, nobody has to worry about it,” Danaher said. “If it’s down in writing, everybody knows.”

Afterward, audience members, many with their rental agreements in hand, approached Danaher with specific questions.

Troy L. Buchanan and Eric Hart, two Ithaca renters, sought out Danaher’s advice regarding an unreturned security deposit. When their lease expired last spring, their landlord did not give back their security deposit, citing damage to the property. His rationale for not refunding the money, they claim, is based on a series of dubious assertions.

Danaher listened to Buchanan and Hart’s story, asked what action they had taken thus far (the two have requested a refund in writing), then suggested that they file a suit in small claims court.

“We thought we had a case,” Hart said. “This makes it a lot better.”

Ann M. Gifford, a Cornell Cooperative Extension project team coordinator, invited audience members to take advantage of their outreach programs, including their Consumer HelpLine, and thanked Danaher for his presentation.

“Hopefully this will help us all to enter into hassle-free, problem-free rental relationships,” Gifford said.

Afterward, Cornell Cooperative Extension staff members distributed sundry informational materials, including pamphlets and forms. Danaher’s talk was recorded and will be broadcast locally this fall.

A representative from the New York State attorney general’s office speaks at the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Tompkins County office on most third Wednesdays. On October 20, Danaher will return to deliver another talk, “Consumers’ Rights and Responsibilities in the Marketplace.”

Archived article by David Gura
Sun Staff Writer