Category Archives: Legal

Should you have to write a letter to get your security deposit back?

There’s a very important piece of legislation coming before the Chicago city council, one that would do a lot for ordinary people waylaid by the foreclosure crisis. But there’s a problem with that bill, or at least a version of it floating around the council chambers. One that could hurt vulnerable tenants around the city. The main bill is basically this: If you rent an apartment and your building went into foreclosure and is now owned by a bank, that bank still has to give you back the security deposit you paid when you signed your lease. That’s the part of the bill everyone agrees upon. But there’s another version with an amendment tacked on that would do something entirely different. That version is sponsored by the Chicagoland Apartment Association, a group that represents landlords, that would require tenants to write their landlord a letter, giving them 14 days to return their security deposit, or they risk not getting it back at all. This letter flies in the face of the Landlord Tenant Ordinance, which gives a landlord 45 days to return that deposit or face legal action. Tenants from around the city gathered today before the meeting to support the main bill, but oppose this 14 day notice amendment. Why? Well, they say the people who would be affected by this are the people who are already vulnerable to unscrupulous landlords. People with little knowledge of the law, those who don’t speak English and those who don’t have the money for legal representation. Alderman Helen Shiller doesn’t like this amendment. She said the amendment would give landlords a financial incentive not to give the deposit back. “It’s in my economic interest not to do so,” said Shiller. “I would just wait until that tenant contacted me to return their money – most of them they won’t know they have the right, they won’t do it or they might be intimidated.” Schiller proposed an amendment of her own – one that makes tenants write a 14 day notice before taking legal action because the landlord didn’t calculate the interest on their security deposit correctly. So, for example, when my landlord sent me a check for $12 last year, if I determined that she owed me $15, I should give her 14 days notice before I sue her over $3. That sounds pretty reasonable, right? I mean, lets cut down on the extraneous lawsuits. On the other hand, just as there are a lot of unscrupulous landlords out there, there are just as many unscrupulous tenants – people that are lawsuit trigger happy and just like to sue for the fun of it or to see how much money they can shake loose from honest business owners. Those people often mess it up for the rest of us, raising our rents and costs because they were looking out for themselves. One man giving testimony (I didn’t catch his name) relayed story just like this. His parents and sister bought a building, and the tenants, who lived their only two days while they owned it, alleged that they didn’t get the properly formatted letter, letting them know they would be getting their deposit back. Not that they didn’t get a deposit – they just didn’t get a letter in the proper format. They sued for around $3500, plus legal fees. This poor elderly couple and their daughter paid that out of pocket. Judith Roettig, president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association, says that the ordinance they favor – the one with the 14 day period for everything – says it doesn’t go against the laws already on the books – the Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance. Tenants right now can sue for twice their security deposit, plus legal fees, if they don’t get their security deposit and interest within 45 days of moving out. “This amendment does not absolutely does not change the owners obligation to comply with all aspects of the RLTO,” said Roettig. “It simply provides a way for the landlord and the tenant to work out out before going to court.” But volunteers who work with tenants at the Metropolitian Tenant Organization hotline say that tenants already have a hard enough time getting their security deposit back. Charlotte Starkes, who volunteers on the hotline, says she talked to one man who paid a $3,800 security deposit – several months rent – and only got $900 back with no notice as to why or what damages he was paying for. Other tenants are told their security deposit is being used to paint or clean the apartment for the next tenant. “It’s done city wide. This problem doesn’t have a color, a neighborhood, an age or a class. It’s going on everywhere,” says Starkes. At the moment, there’s a battle going on in the city council chambers. Fifty plus people are waiting to testify on this legislation, before the building committee even votes on it. So, since we’ve got some time on our hands, what do you think? UPDATE (2:46 p.m.) : As of about one o’clock, Loreen Targos from Metropolitan Tenants Organization told me that after a couple hours of testimony from both sides, the Buildings committee ended up passing the main bill – without either amendment – unanimously. So now it moves to the full council for a vote. The two amendments will be taken up by a subcommittee chaired by Alderman Shiller. Apparently, at the end, Alderman Bernie Stone asked, “Is anyone opposed to ending this useless meeting?” No one was. The democratic process at work…

By Megan Cottrell

The Tenant Blacklist ends

From GothamGazette.com

Council, Courts End the ‘Tenant Blacklist’

The term “blacklisting,” usually associated with 1950’s McCarthyism, has taken on a new meaning. The blacklisted in 21st century New York have been people applying for apartments whom property owners deem undesirable as tenants. In an effort to limit this practice, the New York City Council in March, building on previous court cases, enacted the Tenant Fair Chance Act.

While credit checks are well known, most New Yorkers do not realize that some companies buy landlord-tenant filings, harvest court histories and sell them to landlords. The endgame is for landlords to learn whether the apartment-seeker had an in-court dispute with a prior landlord.

Tenant screening agencies, as the companies are known, may supply information about credit, character, reputation and personal characteristics, but the new law’s emphasis is on “history of contact with any court… [and reports] used for the purpose of serving as a factor in establishing a consumer’s suitability for housing.”

The Legal Background

In the case of White v. First American Registry a class-action was brought in federal court in Manhattan against the nation’s largest tenant screening agency. In his ruling, Judge Lewis Kaplan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York noted that landlords are all too willing to use such “consumer reports” as a blacklist, “refusing to rent to anyone whose name appears on it regardless of whether the existence of a litigation history in fact evidences characteristics that would make one an undesirable tenant.”

The judge went on to say the practice of seizing upon the availability of Housing Court filings helps “to create and market a product that can be, and probably is, used to victimize blameless individuals. Tenants and lawyers in that case won more than $2.9 million.

While everyone agrees landlords have a right to know who will be living in their buildings, and that they should do some checking, Kaplan agreed with tenants that the records obtained and sold by screening agencies are unreliable. As Supreme Court Judge Barbara Kapnick wrote in the later case of Dawn Weisent v. Subaqua, “regardless of whether or not a tenant prevails in the Housing Court, his or her name may appear on the ‘blacklist.'”

Limited Information

The Housing Court records that are bought and sold show merely that a proceeding was commenced, not what ultimately happened in the case, making the information incomplete or even inaccurate. The records the screening agencies receive from the court show a proceeding was brought — for example, Landlord v. Tenant — but give no other information. Because of the limited facts, the case might not even involve the tenant in question, but someone else with the same name, giving a false impression of a potential tenant’s history with a landlord.

The records also do not reveal, for example, that a tenant might have previously withheld rent due to dangerous housing conditions. Instead, they simply show that the tenant was a defendant in a lawsuit. The records also will not reflect that a Housing Court judge might have dismissed the landlord-tenant proceeding, finding that it was baseless, or deciding after trial in favor of the tenant. In other words, the mere fact that there was a proceeding in an apartment related dispute brought to court could be used against a person trying to rent an apartment — even if it is the wrong person.

The Council’s ‘Fair Chance’

The Tenant Fair Chance Act, which was introduced by Manhattan City Councilmember Daniel Garodnick and co-sponsored by 17 other members, goes into effect this summer. It intends to let potential tenants know if screening agencies are being used and what they have reported about them, especially if adverse information has led to denial of an apartment.

In introducing the bill, Garodnick said, “Tenant screening reports are one of the most powerful tools working against renters today, and yet they are almost completely unregulated.”

Under the new law, the tenant who is spurned is entitled to a copy of the report and the opportunity to make any corrections. The law states, “Every tenant or prospective tenant may dispute inaccurate or incorrect information contained in a tenant screening report directly with the consumer reporting agency.”

A violation of the Tenant Fair Chance Act law “shall be subject to a civil penalty of not less than $250 nor more than $700 for each violation.” Other penalties, including criminal prosecution, also are available.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice
This is the full article, but you can view it again here.