By: Akanksha A. Panicker
With COVID-19, courts have had to navigate through hitherto uncharted territory. It’s difficult to walk the line between tenant rights and landlord responsibilities, especially considering how hard the pandemic has hit everyone concerned. Consequently, judgements that are issued by court attempting to signal some clarity and change are to be lauded.
Recent decisions on landlord obligations also bring into question the obligations of tenants. New York landlords must follow specific state rules, such as complying with security deposit limits and the timeline and procedures for ending a tenancy. Failure to comply leads to costly financial difficulties and legal imbroglios. In the article below, pertinent cases relating to the impact of the coronavirus on creating a ‘livable environment’ will be discussed.
[1.0] Landlord Responsibilities
Rental premises are legally required to be kept livable under the ambit of a doctrine called the ‘implied warranty of habitability.’ By this, important repairs must be taken care of by the landlord, as under the Housing Stability & Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (HSTPA), wherein the warranty of habitability was amended to include a duty to repair. The public areas of a building are also covered by the warranty of habitability.
Tenants have options at their disposal to ensure that the place they live in is considered habitable. The right to withhold rent is significant in case of an absolutely unlivable situation, as well as the right to repair and deduct
However, it must be noted that livable housing means the rental meets basic requirements and must be free from significant danger. The protection offered by the rental must be reasonable, and minor damage and repair needs cannot be considered a breach of the implied warrant. A minor repair may be annoying or limiting and an expensive remedy, but the responsibility does not fall on the landlord here. A broken furnace is necessary to repair because heat is an essential, but ugly wallpaper or carpeting doesn’t fall within the bracket of an essential repair, though it may cost more.
[1.1] Case Analysis for Habitable Housing
This concept of landlord responsibility was recently brought forward in the case of 351-359 E. 163RD Street Tenants Association v. East 163 LLC. In this particular case, residential tenants filed an order to show cause in Bronx County Supreme court to remedy the lack of hot water. By the standards above of the implied warranty of habitability, this would come within that ambit.
However, the court also ordered the landlord to comply with “all appropriate safety protocols in light of the COVID-19 pandemic”, including wearing gloves and masks, complying with all rules, regulations, and orders related to social distancing, and following the recommendations of the Centre for Disease Control (“CDC”), the NYS and NYC Departments of Health and other health officials, and to take into consideration the health and safety vulnerabilities of the tenants and their household members to the extent the landlord and/or its agents have knowledge.
This decision is significant, being one of the first from a New York court delineating a landlord’s obligation to follow COVID-19 safety procedures and outlining them as part of the essential repairs of a rental, a category that they wouldn’t have erstwhile qualified for. Commercial landlords may soon follow suit, but the decision identifies the constantly updating matrix of tenant rights.
[2.0] Tenant Responsibilities
The emphasis on tenant rights in the pandemic should not mean the corresponding loss on the parts of the landlords. The case of Anthi New Neocronon Corporation v. Coalition of Landlords is significant, wherein a New York state court ruled on the validity of various COVID-19 Executive and Judicial Administrative Orders.
The timeline of the case starts from the May 7, 2020 order issued by NY Governor Cuomo, granting provisions against eviction for a specific set of individuals who qualified for the same on the basis of ‘financial hardship’. On May 20, 2020 the Office of Court Administration for the New York State Courts issued Administrative Order # 45-20, which stayed all evictions generally.
The May 2020 Administrative order issued by the Office of Court Administration for the New York State Courts stayed evictions generally, in contradiction to the Governor Cuomo Executive Order 202.28, In light of this, the court held that the order was unconstitutional, countermanding Governor Cuomo’s order by also extending eviction stays to holdover proceedings. In the present case, the underlying action involved a holdover proceeding, the court held that the landlord was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law and a granting of a “judgment of possession” and “warrant of eviction”
The decision, however, appears to be an outlier that has been overtaken by the Tenant Safe Harbour Act that expanded the Executive Order by allowing residential tenants to use COVID-19 as a defence in eviction proceedings while also prohibiting landlords from taking possession of their property while COVID-19-related restrictions remain in effect.
[2.1] Why Is This Case Relevant?
Tenant responsibilities are equally as important as those of the landlords. Tenants must comply with the provisions of the law and are responsible for violations caused by willful acts, gross negligence, and abuse. Furthermore, an unreasonable denial to allow access to the apartment by the owner is also grounds for eviction, as making repairs and improvements is a necessity required by the Housing Maintenance Code and Multiple Dwelling Law. Tenants are also responsible to respond to owners on legally required notices.
Additionally, the tenants also owe landlords a corresponding duty of cleanliness. Any tenant is liable for conditions within his apartment to the extent that such conditions are caused by him, by members of his family or by his guests, and are under his control. When a violation is caused and continued solely by the tenant or those under his control, the onus cannot fall back onto the landlord.
The above case is significant, as it instils a corollary sense of responsibility that tenants owe to landlords. In the present circumstances, small ‘mom-and-pop landlords’ are not able to make ends meet, and have barely any other means of recourse. Consequently, cases like the abovementioned clarify murky instances of law while also attempting to provide an equal footing for the parties concerned.
Ultimately, the cases mentioned merely depict uncertainty of the obligations of a private party in a pandemic. The responsibilities on either side of the landlord-tenant dynamic are skewed, and in some cases, courts find that COVID-19 excuses parties from their usual legal obligations, while in other cases it does not. Interpretation of new judgements appears to be the only manner of understanding the changing landscape.
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1.N.Y. Real Prop. Law § 235-b
2.LT-708-19/BA, 2020 NYLJ LEXIS 1143 (Dist. Ct. Suffolk Cnty. July 15, 2020)
3.Executive Order #202.28
4.Staying evictions for nonpayment of rent for certain tenants in New York until October 1st
5.NY Real Prop Law Chapter 50, Article 7, Section 235-b.