Governor’s veto helps landlords, hurts tenants

BY Aline Reynolds

Low-wage tenants receiving public subsidies will continue to keep battling their landlords in housing court, following Governor Paterson’s veto of a new state law.

On October 1, the governor shot down a bill that would have allowed low-income tenants on public assistance to keep tabs on their rental payments. Specifically, the proposed law would have enabled them to obtain receipts documenting payment via a 3-1-1 request, thereby avoiding eviction proceedings.

In his veto message, the Governor contends that a law requiring such additional responsibilities from New York City employees would be financially taxing to the city.

The message reads, “The bill places no limit on the number of certifications that may be requested, which is likely to augment its costs… In the current fiscal climate, I cannot impose an unfunded mandate on New York City, notwithstanding its laudable purpose.”

Paterson’s argument does not pass muster among the tenants and those who defend them. Under the current system, they say, New York State tenants who receive state subsidies can’t prove that their landlord has been paid outside of the court setting. As a result, they’re often unfairly taken to court, according to the bill’s proponents.

“It’s a crazy system – housing court is expensive, burdensome and a terrible and costly experience,” said, N.Y. State Senator Daniel Squadron, the bill’s sponsor. “And it’s an inefficient use of attorneys’ time.”

Receipts of lease payments, Squadron added, are “a basic expectation in every transaction, everywhere in the country,” and tenants should have independent access to them.

“[City officials] oppose anything that puts additional requirements on the city. I think it’s very short-sighted,” explained Judith Goldiner, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

Goldiner and her colleagues represent low-income tenants citywide in housing court, including ones in Lower Manhattan, that receive financial aid from the City Department of Social Services. The tenants are mostly under 62 years of age and earn very low wages. Some of them are disabled but do not qualify for disability services.

Landlords often lose track of payments due to bad bookkeeping or because “they really want to get rid of [the tenant],” Goldiner explained. The tenants are then at a disadvantage in court, since they have no receipt evidencing their payments when they first appear in front of the judge.

And, though the D.S.S. is responsible for a portion of the rental fees to the landlord, the tenant is ultimately accountable for proving the payments. “It’s not the [D.S.S.] that’s going to get evicted, it’s the tenant,” Goldiner explained.

Squadron, who is disappointed in the Governor’s decision, said he plans on reintroducing the bill to the State Senate next year, once the new legislative session begins.

“There is not actual reason to be opposed to this bill,” he said.

Last summer, Paterson vetoed a different bill Squadron sponsored that would have outlawed housing discrimination of tenants based on the source of their income.

“That veto was [also] a major blow to people who receive rental assistance, who often have trouble finding homes,” Squadron said in a statement. The rejection of the latest bill, he added, was “a gratuitous denial of relief for the same vulnerable population.”