Syracuse, N.Y. — Aaliyah Rowell walks into the front room of her family’s Syracuse apartment with her backpack on and shoes tied. The 6-year-old holds a basket of Barbies and princess dolls. She is ready to go.
She is being evicted.
This is the second time in six months that Rowell and her family are moving.
This time they go to a hotel. They hadn’t found a new apartment before a marshal tacked a court order to their door: You have 72 hours to get out.
If their landlord had filed against them two days later, the situation would be vastly different. That’s because a new law went into effect last month that drastically changes the rules for evictions across the state.
Tenants who once had to beg for mercy from their landlords are now guaranteed a list of specific rights that give them weeks, and sometimes months, more time before they can be kicked out. The provisions were largely overlooked in the conversation about the law, which also addressed rent control.
“Tenants rights have changed profoundly,” said Sally Curran, executive director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County. “Profoundly.” Curran’s organization runs an eviction prevention program that represents tenants at eviction court in Syracuse every day.
In Syracuse in 2017, more than 5,000 families were evicted. That churn in low-income housing sends ripples through entire families. Kids lose time in school, grownups lose time at work, sometimes their jobs. The chaos costs landlords money, too.
Under the new law, tenants who simply show up to court and ask for more time when their landlord starts an eviction case against them automatically get 14 more days. And when the marshal comes to evict them, they get 14 days there, too, instead of 72 hours.
Landlords are prohibited from blacklisting tenants or from using a person’s past eviction history in deciding whether to rent to them. Tenants advocates are praising the changes; landlords say it’s turning them into social service agencies.
Curran’s organization, Legal Services of CNY and Hiscock Legal Aid Society are working to inform tenants and landlords of the changes.
Before, many tenants wouldn’t call for legal help or show up to court because the situation seemed hopeless.
“We’d like to get the word out,” said Linda Gerhon, executive director of Hiscock Legal Aid. “There’s hope.” It’s worth it to show up to court, she said.
In Syracuse’s landlord tenant court in the weeks after the law passed, the judges were reminding landlords that the rules were different now. The biggest changes:
- if a tenant is ordered evicted, instead of 72 hours, the court order must give the tenant 14 days.
- If the tenant can pay up, in full, at any time during the eviction process, the landlord has to accept.
- Landlords who unlawfully evict tenants can now be fined and charged with a misdemeanor.
- Landlords cannot use a tenant’s history of evictions or judgments from landlords to refuse to rent to them
- Landlords have to give written notice when they start eviction proceedings. They cannot start court proceedings for at least 10 days after the tenant is served.
- If the tenant shows up to court and asks for an adjournment, the judge has to grant it and the minimum is two weeks.
Carlotta Brown, a Syracuse landlord and president of the Onondaga County Real Estate Investors’ Club, a landlord organization, said she and the other landlords are still trying to figure out the new law. But so far, there’s a lot they don’t like.
“We’re not the social service department,” Brown said. “It’s slanted toward the protection of tenants.”
Under the new law, landlords cannot use a tenant’s eviction history when deciding to rent to them.
“That’s insane,” Brown said. She said most landlords, including herself, use eviction as a last resort. So the way she sees it, only the worst tenants end up evicted.
But she said like tenants, not all landlords are decent.
Rowell’s family shows how even another week can make a difference. They spent nearly $1,000 of their savings at the Super 8 Motel, which is close to Rowell’s mother’s job. Bianca Smokes and her boyfriend both work. They don’t receive any rental assistance or public assistance. They also didn’t qualify for any relocation help.
So every dollar they spent on a place to live in the days after they were evicted came from the money they had been saving for a new place.
Smokes spent her whole paycheck paying the hotel bill.
Her story is replayed in Syracuse’s landlord tenant court daily. There are two sides.
Smokes says that when she, her five kids and her boyfriend moved into their apartment in February, the space and the location were perfect. Three bedrooms: one the boys can share, one the girls can share and one for her and her boyfriend. The street, Coykendall, is a quiet, dead end in a safe, walkable neighborhood. The Centro bus comes nearby, which is important because the family has no car.
But there were things that needed to be fixed when she moved in, Smokes said. She said the landlord, Sam Yasin, agreed to fix them. The third bedroom has a cracked window and floor that gave the kids splinters. The boys and the girls were crammed into the same room until that could be fixed.
There is an open vent in the kitchen and a hole in a closet floor where mice and rats were coming in, Smokes said. The refrigerator was rusted. Neither the smoke detector or the carbon monoxide detector worked.
Smokes said months went by and the problems weren’t fixed. She did what many tenants do: withheld her rent. Either the problems would be fixed or she’d have enough money saved to find some place with a better landlord and no rats, she said. But the problems weren’t fixed.
Smokes said she also called code enforcement, but was told by the person who answered the phone that they would call her landlord, instead of offering to come inspect the property then. This often happens, and is part of a new effort by code enforcement to get landlords and tenants to work together, said Stephanie Pasquale, commissioner of Neighborhood and City Development. But to Smokes, it seemed like code enforcement was already taking sides. She ended the call.
Yasin, the landlord, disputed Smokes’ story. He said the apartment was in perfect shape when she moved in and that she and her family fell behind on the rent, then became angry when he threatened to evict them. He said they did the damage she’s complaining about.
“The place was in immaculate condition,” Yasin said. He said Smokes and her family could not afford the apartment; rent was $750. “All the problems come up when they realize they can’t pay the rent.”
A reporter and photographer from Syracuse.com were inside the apartment before Smokes moved out. Many of the problems appeared to be longstanding, including the holes where vermin were coming in and a section of floor that buckled when anyone walked on it. Records show the house was built in 1872. They also show that there are no open code violations.
But another property of Yasin’s shows violations similar to Smokes’ complaints. And a posting on Craig’s List about another property of his echoes those complaints and offers photos.
Yasin said that’s the same situation: angry tenants who couldn’t pay and damaged his property.
“If you can’t pay the rent, you should move out,” he said.
Smokes and her family were looking for a new place in June when Yasin filed the court order to get them out.
But they were also living a busy life. She works across town at Dunkin’ Donuts. He works at the mall. There was a kindergarten graduation, and eighth-graduation and a high school graduation.
Smokes looks out the front door as she waits for the family’s ride to the hotel. A bag of stuff that would go to storage sits near her. On top is a Father’s Day card the littlest made for Smokes’ boyfriend.
A photo had fallen on the floor. It is of De’Miah, 9. She was dressed up as a doctor on a school field trip to Hospital Land.
Smokes picks up the photo and tucks it back into the bag.