March 10, 2009

Forum Emphasizes Tenants’ Legal Rights

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Among the looming prelims and endless hours spent in the library, trouble with Collegetown leases is another stressor to the lives of many Cornell students.
Michael Danaher, New York Assistant Attorney General, took up some major issues with tenant and landlord rights yesterday afternoon in Willard Straight Hall in a forum sponsored by the Off-Campus Housing Organization.
The purpose of the discussion was to answer students’ questions and inform them of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to living off campus. A handful of students and a few members of the Ithaca community, including Svante Myrick ’09 of the Ithaca Common Council, gathered in the Straight’s memorial room to hear Danaher speak.
“Because there’s a major University and another large college here in Ithaca, it’s one of the unusual places where the vast majority of housing in and around [the city] is rental housing,” Danaher said.
He estimated 60 to 70 percent of Ithaca’s residential properties as rental housing.
“Sometimes landlords recognize that many students are going to be leaving the area after they graduate, so they’re not going to be able to pursue their security deposits or any issues with their landlords,” Danaher said.
He was careful not to blame landlords for all tenant-landlord disputes, however.
“Although I am a consumer advocate, I take a very even approach to [tenant and landlord issues],” Danaher said. “Not all landlords are bad….and it’s not always the landlord that’s at fault. There are many tenants who are bad tenants.”
Danaher focused on tenant rights involving leases, security deposits and evictions, describing his presentation as “leasing 101.”
“We not only have consumer rights — tenants have rights — but tenants also have responsibilities,” he said.
Danaher emphasized the importance of detailing these rights and responsibilities in a written lease. New York State law does not require lease agreements to be in writing if they last for less than one year.
But according to Danaher, written leases avoid future problems. “If you detail it in the lease, then everybody knows what their responsibilities are,” he said.

The tenant is responsible for paying rent, keeping up the property and returning the property in the same condition it in which it was rented.
“[Tenants] have to treat [the property] as if it’s their own,” Danaher said. “They can’t be throwing their friend through the wall in the living room just because they were dancing.”
The landlord’s responsibility is to provide a habitable residence, usually recognized as nothing more than a roof, four walls, heat and hot water, according to Danaher.
Handling of the security deposit is also up to the landlord. Danaher stressed that the money in the security deposit belongs to the tenant. The landlord cannot intermingle this money with his or her own, and the tenant has a right to collect the interest on the deposit if it is invested in an interest-bearing bank account.
A tenant’s security deposit can only be forfeited for damage beyond “reasonable wear and tear, what a reasonable person would expect to happen in time of lease,” according to Danaher.
Danaher represented Binghamton University in a civil case brought by the owner of an apartment complex that the university rented for overflow student housing. The judge ruled against the university and the damage done by its students over the ten-year rental period, to the tune of $600,000.
“It was a simple landlord-tenant issue,” Danaher said.
The last major point that Danaher addressed was tenant rights dealing with evictions.
“Specific things have to be done, and they have to be done right. If they’re not done right, the landlord cannot proceed with the eviction,” he said.
Those particular measures include a preliminary 72-hour notice to “pay or get out,” followed by a summary proceeding by the landlord for recovery of property if the notice is not met. The property owner must then serve the tenant with a notice and a petition within five to 12 days of the impending court case.
Danaher stated that the grounds for eviction must be “reasonable,” a word he referenced several times throughout the forum.
“The landlord has to act reasonably, and what is reasonable depends on the facts and circumstances,” he said. “The landlord cannot throw your furniture out the second -story window, but it doesn’t mean they have to store your stuff. Reasonable may mean putting your stuff out on the curb.”
In the end, Danaher stressed the importance of having a “good relationship with your landlord.”
The Off-Campus Housing Organization presented the forum as part of their goal to “provide education, referrals, and resources to those who want to live off campus,” according to Kim Fezza, director of the OCHO.
“Housing education, like any other education, is one of the most important tools that you will need to create a successful life,” Fezza said.
Ryan Gomez ’09 volunteered for the OCHO at the forum. “I’m out here because I found that I had the force of the University behind me when I had housing issues,” he said. “I’m helping out because they’ve been helping people out.”