Schenectady tenants to face tougher leases?
Landlords’ group eyes form as new standard
SCHENECTADY A new lease that bans barbecuing, forces tenants to pay for pest removal and asks invasive questions may become the new standard lease in Schenectady.
The group Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change has been working on a standard lease, which all of its members could use. The initial goal was to get members to use a lease at all, but it grew into a six-page document designed to protect landlords and minimize their costs.
SLIC organizer Chris Morris said the lease was stricter than most landlords would consider necessary — and that was a good thing.
“You can always back off on them if individual things come up,” she said. “Once they do something, it’s really difficult to turn it around.”
Some landlords spend months going through eviction court hearings over issues that could have been avoided by banning certain activity from the start. Morris has argued that clear rules are the bedrock of a good tenant-landlord relationship.
But the leader of Schenectady’s new tenant group, Deb Rembert, was stunned by some of the stricter provisions.
If a landlord promises that a unit will be ready by a certain date, and it is not, the tenant can’t break the lease, according to the terms set out in the document. They can only walk away if the unit still isn’t ready 30 days later.
“The landlord already broke the lease,” Rembert said in disbelief. “They can’t do that. If that tenant says, ‘OK, I’m going to look somewhere else,’ they should be able to do that.”
Landlord Mitch Goldstein, who was instrumental in writing the lease, said landlords should be protected from losing a tenant because of an emergency.
A fair solution would be to send a tenant to a motel and split the bill, he said.
“He knows he’s going to be liable for damages,” Goldstein added. “It doesn’t need to say that in the lease.”
But 30 days is a long time to wait. Rembert said the landlord should instead return the tenant’s security deposit and first month’s rent so that the tenant could find another apartment.
The proposed lease also hides the true cost of the apartment.
At a recent meeting about the lease, SLIC attorney Sarah Green encouraged landlords to write down a rent that was several hundred dollars higher than it actually is, while offering tenants a “discount” to the actual rent if they pay before the fifth of the month. Landlords would advertise the unit at the discounted price.
The higher amount could be used by the landlord to maximize the amount of money they could get from the tenant if they have to evict, Green said.
Judges don’t like large late-payment fees, but they will approve the payment of the non-discounted rent, she explained.
Such legal maneuverings made Rembert decide that tenants need an attorney.
“I think that’s dishonest,” she said. “We need a lawyer. Now they have a lawyer, and we need one to counteract some of what the landlord group does.”
Morris called the rent discount a “tactic” and said she eliminated it from her leases long ago.
“I took that out. I wanted to be able to state the rent,” she said.
The lease also forces tenants to take on a responsibility that the state requires of landlords. If pests invade after the first week, the tenant must pay for pest-removal services, even though state law says pest control is the landlord’s responsibility.
Schenectady Homeownership Coordinator Ahmad Yusufi said tenants should cross out that section when signing the lease and get help from an attorney.
But Rembert said she doubted landlords would let her change a lease.
“I’m pretty sure if tenants don’t sign this, landlords will say, ‘You can’t habitate in our premises,’ ” she said.
If they do sign, they might have to go to court to find out who has to pay for pest control.
City Deputy Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico said the landlord might still have to pay. In general, he said, a lease can’t supersede state law. He wasn’t sure how a judge would rule on the matter, though.
Logistically, the provision could also be complicated. Many pest-control services only offer year-long contracts, creating problems in cases where the tenant’s lease expires before their contract. In those cases, tenants could wind up paying for pest control months after moving out.
Rembert said most tenants would not be able to afford a service anyway.
“That means they will be living with pests for the duration of their time in that apartment,” she said.
But Morris argued vehemently in favor of the provision, saying tenants cause most infestations.
“One would assume, if something of that nature is there, it’s because of something they’re doing,” she said.
The lease also prohibits some common activities, including barbecuing. The lease forbids tenants from storing a barbecue grill, even though many units have backyards large enough to operate a grill safely.
That prohibition doesn’t violate state law, Yusufi said.
“But personally, I don’t think tenants should be prevented,” he said. “The landlord should not take the tenant’s rights away to enjoy the property he is paying for.”
Goldstein said that although he will use the standard lease with his tenants, he would never stop a tenant from barbecuing.
“If somebody says, ‘I want a barbecue,’ you just cross it out,” he said. “If someone wants to barbecue, I’m not going to have any objection, zero. But some landlords, they have had experiences where the barbecue has been an issue.”
The lease also requires tenants to pay for carpet cleaning once a year and bans all business activity — including babysitting. That would keep small business activity from “getting out of control,” Morris said.
But Rembert said many tenants have side businesses — selling crafts on Etsy or occasional babysitting — and shouldn’t be prohibited.
“I don’t think the landlord should have that kind of power,” she said, “as long as it’s not damaging the property. However, the landlord should make it clear, if your business gets out of hand, I’m going to have to ask you to refrain. Let the tenant and the landlord agree on that, and then the tenant can sign something to that effect.”
With the lease comes a standard application SLIC has also proposed for all of its members. The application asks renters to list a credit card number, the expiration date of the card, the name on the card and the security number on the back.
Goldstein said he asks for the credit card information so he can recoup unpaid rent or payment for damages after a tenant leaves.
“It’s a self-protection measure. Often someone will leave and monies will be owed,” he said. “If you have a credit card number, you have a chance to make yourself whole.”
But an unauthorized credit card charge sounds a lot like stealing, Rembert said.
“To jack the tenant up, that’s wrong,” she said, adding that the landlord should use the security deposit to cover damages or unpaid rent.
Landlords would also take a huge risk by keeping credit card information, Yusufi said. If someone broke into their files and used the cards, the landlord would be responsible.
“The tenant can suffer identify theft,” he said, adding that tenants could sue the landlord for damages.
The application also asks renters if they have ever been sued or sued a person or corporation. Those questions are listed in the same box with questions about bankruptcy and felony convictions. The intent was to find out whether tenants regularly sued landlords, Goldstein said.
“That would be important to know about,” he said.
But Rembert worried a tenant might be rejected for an apartment because of a long-ago lawsuit.
“It can become a prejudice against us. They will then decide they won’t have you on their property,” she said.
Overall, she said, she was dismayed by the proposed standard lease and application.
“The landlords are having way too much power,” she said. “Now that they have an attorney, that’s going to be a step up for them and a step down for the tenants.”
She wants to raise funds for a tenants’ group attorney, with hope the two groups’ attorneys could meet and hammer out the “best lease” for both sides.
“We should collaborate,” she said. “Some of the landlords are just what we say: slumlords. And that will give them too much power.”
Goldstein argued the lease is just a starting point.
“It is a strong lease,” he said, explaining that “you just throw in everything, including the kitchen sink, even if it sounds silly.”
Then landlords can make accommodations with each individual tenant. They don’t just enforce the letter of the law, he said.
“There is also the spirit. Landlords are people, and they are dealing with people,” he said.
The landlord group, SLIC, will next meet on Sept. 3 at 6:30 p.m. in the Price Chopper Community Room.
The tenant group, STAMP, will next meet Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m. in the McChesney Room at the main branch of the Schenectady County Public Library.