ALBANY (TNS) — Property taxes are due, but Deborah Pusatere doesn’t have the cash to cover the small apartment buildings she manages.
Pusatere, New York Capital Region Apartment Association president and co-leader of the Under One Roof NY Coalition, said while there are some tenants who have true coronavirus-related issues that have impacted their ability to pay rent, many others are taking advantage of the situation.
“Depending on the social scene a tenant runs in, the bad behavior is contagious,” she said. “So when tenant one tells tenant two they don’t have to pay, tenant two tests the waters and realizes there is nothing you can do and it spreads like cancer. Especially when you have buildings next to each other and tenants know each other.”
New York lawmakers late last year extended a statewide eviction moratorium that places a 60-day stay on eviction proceedings and provides a hardship form that tenants can submit to the courts to halt any eviction proceedings until May 1.
But landlords contend many of their tenants owing thousands of dollars in unpaid rent are gainfully employed and are simply not paying. Meanwhile, rent relief programs have struggled to get money into the hands of those who need it most, and few of those programs allow landlords direct access, requiring the tenant to request the assistance.
James Kleinbaum, who represents about 100 landlords in eviction cases in Upstate New York, said his clients have many tenants who have money and refuse to pay.
“When pushed on it, they say, ‘Well, the governor says I don’t have to pay, so I’m not paying and there’s nothing you can do about it,’” Kleinbaum said. “And we’ve had that happen time after time.”
In Colonie, small apartment landlord Peter Romotowski said one tenant appears able to afford to take multiple vacations but unable to pay the $1,200 monthly rent for the single-family home Rapp rents.
Come February, the tenant will owe $8,400, Romotowski said. The tenant has not paid rent since July and was served with a 60-day notice of lease termination in October, advising Rapp he would have to vacate by Dec. 31. But due to the 60-day stay and court closures, that process has been put on hold.
“My hands are really tied behind my back while I watch this guy go to Las Vegas with his kids. Going to playoff football games,” Romotowski said. “He’s crying poverty here. I don’t think so.”
An eviction could move forward if a landlord successfully makes a case that the tenant is behaving in a way that “substantially infringes” on another person’s use of the property, or causes a safety hazard. But landlords and attorneys representing them say the burden of proof is high and getting a court hearing on the matter still could take months.
Albany attorney David Green, who represents landlords in thousands of eviction cases annually, said he’s mostly advised clients not to file a nuisance claim out of concern that court hearings will be postponed from the outset. Plus, many of the nuisance behaviors that landlords deal with from tenants don’t rise to the level outlined in the eviction moratorium, he said.
“Most of the breeches of the lease agreement like having an animal, smoking, overcrowding, garbage not being picked up, just being an all around slob, those breeches are not nuisance because they are not impacting another tenant,” Green said.
The solution, they say, is two-fold: open courts and restore eviction proceedings and provide fiscal relief directly to landlords. The state COVID-19 Emergency Rent Relief program provides funds directly to landlords, but tenants must be the ones to apply.
Pusatere said allowing evictions to go forward will weed out the bad actors who are taking advantage of the moratorium, while freeing up financial assistance that can only be dispersed after moratoriums have expired.
“We are the only industry forced to be open, pay for service and we can’t be reimbursed for the service,” she said. “I have a ton of taxes due in two weeks. I’ve already taken out loans, gone through savings. Someone is going to have to make up my loss in rent because I just don’t have it.”
Foreclosures on homes are also stayed under the moratorium, but property owners will still be behind on mortgage payments.
Laura Felts, executive director of United Tenants of Albany, said the nonprofit received various grants to assist tenants with paying back rent, but recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development indicates some of those funds can’t be spent until after eviction moratoriums expire.
The organization has roughly $180,000 that could be used to pay back rent and keep tenants housed, but the restrictions could force United Tenants to give back some of those funds, she said. United Tenants and other organizations are seeking clarity from HUD regarding the funds.
“I think collectively as a community our outrage or concern should be articulated to the entities that have the power to actually mitigate some of this overwhelming debt that is being experienced across the entire state,” Felt said. “I think it’s very, very clear that tenants can’t fix this problem, neither can landlords. This is the point of having a government, so we are protected when things like this happen.”