A Rochester landlord swindled in court… again.
What you are about to read will outrage you. And it’s all true. Names have been changed to protect perpetrators and those with small children. My name is Valerie K. Lazarus, and I moved to Rochester in 2007 to go to school. Houses here are cheaper than dirt, and after looking at the cost of renting a dorm room, I chose to buy a multi-unit building and live in one of the apartments. It took me 20 years to get my bachelor’s degree, so I look at student housing as an investment, and after trying to get Powerpoint work here, I was glad I had landlording to fall back on as a source of income. I didn’t have a problem finding work, my problem was getting paid for it. As a last resort I went to Rochester City Small Claims Court, where Judge Crime ruled in favor of the businessman who hired me then changed his mind after I put in 8 hours on his project. Landlording is expensive and requires maintenance, but the hours are flexible enough for me to have another occupation on the side which I can’t quit. The second job also requires maintenance, is expensive and doesn’t pay me one red cent. I’m a full-time volunteer mother.
Landlording when it’s done right involves a binding legal contract called a Lease which is designed to make income relatively predictable. When you own a building you need predictable income so you can pay expenses like property taxes, insurance, the water bill, the garbage removal bill, plus you need to fix furnaces every winter, replace large appliances and fix windows, pipes and holes in walls. You might even need to put on a new roof or pay for other disasters that come up while keeping a roof over your own head and food on your table. Everyone who has ever been a tenant knows they must put down a cash security deposit before the landlord lets them move in. This deposit equals one month’s rent though ideally it should be two months’ rent for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. Landlords who know what they’re doing charge a late fee religiously if the rent isn’t paid by the fifth of the month. The late fee, generally $50, is really not enough to cover costs late-paying tenants run up, which I’ll explain in a moment. And finally, the lease requires the tenant to give 30 days notice before moving out, again so that income will be predictable enough for the landlord to pay other bills. A standard lease holds a tenant responsible for running up the water bill if someone is living in their apartment who isn’t on the lease and gives the landlord the right to remove them promptly for objectionable or destructive behavior. Let me stress that if income cannot be expected to cover costs for any reason, the landlord cannot pay expenses, which include maintenance of the building and property taxes.
I was not good at landlording when I started. I was a poor judge of character. I ran up debts evicting tenants who didn’t feel like paying their rent or were objectionable and destructive. There is a Council in the city designed to give landlords (and tenants) helpful advice, and as soon as I started going to them for advice I learned (in fact, I was told outright) to take everything they said with a grain of salt, so to speak. They cannot give legal advice, and they charge $30 for forms. The first few times I evicted tenants, I had to do it more than once because the process is complicated. I went to my neighborhood copy center on one of these occasions and found a sad hand printed note left behind on the copy machine from a local landlord who apparently could no longer pay his taxes and did not have medical insurance, begging for help from the Department of Social Services. I heard horror stories from other landlords about welfare tenants destroying their buildings and DSS refusing to pay for damages. Most of them had gotten out of the business. And I saw houses up and down my street abandoned, one by one, including my next door neighbor’s house. I knew her for a while and was surprised to find out she was a landlord, too. I was fortunate to be introduced to a maintenance man by my realtor four years ago, who was also a property manager. Today he struggles for paying work because the landlords he meets have agreements with their tenants that they won’t fix the buildings while the tenant lives rent-free until the building is sold. This is how it works in quite a few slums on the west side of the city just north of 490. Before my realtor skipped town, he told me how people from other states and other countries would buy the cheap houses in Rochester and then let them fall apart. I went to my church bishop several times for assistance, and he would always shake his head. “I can’t feel bad for you when you own property,” he would say, before telling me about a gas station that was hiring out in Victor. Finally my church put me on the dole, and I was able to get free food so my daughter and I could eat.
After I gave up looking for paying work, I was surprised to see Judge Crime in landlord tenant court. He and the other judges were chummy with the legal aid attorneys, whose salaries are paid by the same charity that funds the Council landlords go to. They seek out the tenants and offer to represent them against landlords for free. After a year or two, I was persuaded to go to the Council’s workshop for landlords. They had an attorney volunteer his time, and he spoke flippantly and superficially about practices and court rules and judges. It appeared the other landlords in the room were attempting to take everything he said as gospel, but I had already appeared before almost every judge he mentioned and my experience had been quite different. I had to restrain myself from arguing outright with this attorney, who was giving misleading and dangerous advice. As months went by, the legal aid attorneys became more aggressive, making specific wording necessary for a landlord to enforce late fees in the lease. Judges scoff at a landlord’s demand to be reimbursed for a water bill, and at the very idea of a landlord charging a security deposit, which tenants are routinely allowed to use as last month’s rent due to the month’s notice the landlord always has to give. Most recently, the legal aid attorneys have convinced judges to disregard leases converting to month-to-month upon their expiration, which means the landlord can no longer get a five-day eviction for nonpayment of rent or objectionable tenancy but has to wait until the next month, so a landlord can lose out on up to two months’ rent. Eviction procedure in Rochester City Court is now pot luck for landlords, with tenants living virtually rent-free. Ironically, these judges’ salaries are paid for by property taxes the landlords struggle to pay.
The worst part for me as a landlord is that recently my former tenants have been hauling me into Small Claims Court for their security deposits. The judge told the first one outright that she could not expect to get her security deposit back after living in my building a month without paying rent, but he laughed at my counterclaim for her late fees as though I was not entitled to reimbursement for evicting her for nonpayment. Most recently, however, a judge ruled that a tenant I tried to evict for nonpayment (among other reasons) was entitled to her security deposit back and had not caused any damage to my building. Her memorandum states: “Claimant proved her claim by a fair preponderance of the material, relevant and credible evidence.” I had documentation with me in the courtroom and a material witness who had done the repairs, while the tenant basically stated “I took pictures but I don’t have them here,” and that was her proof. I had been evicting the tenant because she ran my water bill up from $80 per quarter to $200 per quarter, and I testified before the judge that I could tell it was her based on the repairs we had to make to her bathroom that none of the other tenants needed, including warped plastic and melting paint on walls. Her boyfriend admitted to my face that he had lived there since she moved in though he was not on the lease, plus it was discovered that she had been running a daycare out of her apartment. The judge heard all this, but she could have ruled simply on the basis that the tenant refused to give me 30 days notice that she was moving out. So the bottom line is, I lost February rent which the claimant did not pay, the money I paid for repairs and the water bill she ran up with her boyfriend, and now there’s a judgment against me for her security deposit. Think this ruling is a fluke? Think again. Four months ago I was sued in small claims court by two people whom I did not know who sublet without my knowledge from a leased tenant, ripped carpets out of the unit and then claimed I owed them money for repairs. I had proof and a witness and the judge refused to hear me because I had not filed a counterclaim, then ruled in their favor. How am I supposed to pay damages to all these no-accounts who drain the system, when I am the one who is repeatedly damaged by poor judgment in the Hall of Justice?
Judge Crime and his honorable henchmen in the Rochester City Court are destroying this city through their ignorance and their refusal to uphold the law. A tenant must pay rent. A landlord is entitled to collect rent EVERY month, and to prompt evictions of objectionable and destructive tenants. Prompt means within 5 days, period. A tenant’s hearsay testimony is not gospel, they are capable of lying and should be subject to the same requirement of tangible proof as everyone else. The Department of Social Services must begin paying landlords first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security for all DSS tenants moving into an apartment instead of paying twice the housing cost to shelters out of Rochester homeowners’ property taxes. And finally, a Lease is a binding legal contract and should be treated as such. If these judges don’t understand what that means, they must step down immediately or be reprimanded and take a cut in pay. And forget about mis-educating landlords: all Rochester City Court judges must now be subject to a public remedial workshop so they can learn about rental agreements, why landlords charge security deposits and late fees and why said fees must be upheld. If these measures are not taken, we will all get the city we deserve, full of abandoned houses, no law enforcement and schools that can’t be paid for.