Ericka Johnson stands in the doorway of her apartment at Brighton Place Townhouses at 508 Brighton Ave. in Syracuse. Her son came home on September 21 and discovered the fallen in ceiling, Sept 30, 2022 Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Tenants renting any of the 34,308 homes and apartments in Syracuse, about 60% of the city’s entire housing stock, face inescapable truths every day. 

For instance, the American Community Survey estimates that 55% of them are rent-burdened, meaning they spend a third of their income on rent and utilities.

They have also had to contend with the fallout of an unprecedented pandemic that has affected their material reality and changed how they think of housing.

The effects of housing instability and the possibility of eviction, fair housing advocates say, take a toll not only on the physical and emotional health of Syracuse families, but hinder their ability to access vital services and education opportunities.

Central Current interviewed city renters, political leaders, landlords, housing advocates, and legal experts throughout the year. Key stakeholders explored some of the city’s biggest issues with rental housing, including how legislation proposed at the state level could provide tenants with significant protections against eviction.

With the sun setting on some pandemic-era rental housing regulations, Syracuse renters will gradually return to more familiar conditions of tenant living in 2023 – and learn whether their circumstances have substantially changed for the better.

Read more: Syracuse’s rental registry shows nearly half of 9,000 properties are not in compliance

Pandemic creates more sympathy for tenants facing evictions

New York’s shelter-in-place order during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic changed how some perceive housing. 

Kira Moodliar, a member of the Syracuse Democratic Socialists of America who has helped organize tenants in the city’s north, south and west sides, said the pandemic laid bare the psychological effects of housing instability and near eviction.

“Imagine not being able to imagine where you see yourself in the next few weeks, months?” Moodliar said. “That has such a weight on the person. For the kids growing up with that anxiety, it is very intense in ways that don’t always necessarily express themselves right away.”

Rapidly changing housing conditions are destabilizing for tenants, they said.

“Just the surety of being able to say ‘I know I’ll have the heat on and I’ll have a roof over my head.’ That is very easy to take for granted,” they said. “The moment those things are put into question, you’re suddenly taking away the very basic tools that allow people to live.”

The early days of pandemic living exposed the housing uncertainty tenants faced, legal experts said, but it also made others think how that risk of losing one’s home affects several aspects of modern life.

“Eviction used to mean that you would have to go find someplace else to live,” said Dennis Kaufman, the executive director of Legal Services of Central New York. “We now know that every single household that faces eviction is going to see the consequences reflected on tenants’ ability to find and keep a job, their access to healthcare, and even their kids’ education.”

Tenants at Ballantyne Gardens Apartments say they haven’t had heat and are living in other poor conditions. Photo by Julie McMahon.

Peter McCarthy, a former landlord and contractor, said he saw firsthand how some owners in the university area treated their properties. It made him turn down repair projects.

“I saw lots of incidents of landlords exploiting their tenants and exploiting the properties and letting them run down and then selling them to somebody else,” McCarthy said. “They were playing this game just trying to extract as much money as they could.”

In 1980, McCarthy purchased his first rental property near Syracuse University. Three years later, he purchased a second property right across the street. He committed to his construction work, repairing one of his properties after a fire, and spent years working on the homes of other landlords around the city.

“We decided rather than let this go to a landlord that wouldn’t do good things, we would buy it ourselves,” he recalled.

“It is not really difficult for you to get a fair income out of your rentals as long as you take proper care of them and make sure that things are done right. If you can’t do that, you should not be in business.”

Syracuse legislators support ‘good cause’ eviction law

McCarthy Manor Apartments, an affordable housing development at 501 S. Crouse. Ave., faced increased public scrutiny in February when the city’s Division of Code Enforcement attended a press conference put on by tenants and members of the Syracuse Tenants Organizing For Power Coalition.

Tony Bibs, a 64-year-old cancer survivor, was the president of McCarthy’s tenants union at the time. He said the building, which serves mostly seniors, faced grave pest infestations and plumbing issues, as well as critical mechanical problems like a lack of heating and proper light fixtures. 

“We are tired of the neglect that has been taking place in this building for years,” he said. “It is 2022, and we have to take a shower and be quick about it if we want the hot water to last. It is too late in the game for us to still have to beg for hot water.”

Bibs, who receives public assistance, said his relationship with the property manager became so contentious that multiple tenants received notifications signaling their rent would increase. 

“At a certain point with these increases, how much out of your disability checks are you left with?” he said.

While gathering support from his neighbors to form a united front demanding better housing conditions at McCarthy Manor Apartments, Bibs said he received a letter from management indicating he could be evicted for being a nuisance.

Syracuse is set to close out the year with nearly as many eviction filings in Syracuse City Court as it had prior to the pandemic, mostly for non-payment cases.

Data from a statewide landlord-tenant eviction dashboard created by New York Unified Court System’s Division of Technology and Court Research suggests there have been approximately 3,723 eviction filings this year. The figure nears the 4,106 filings reported in 2019 — the most recent year that did not feature a pause on evictions.

Kaufman thinks the number of evictions would be greater if it wasn’t for both the Onondaga County Emergency Rental Assistance Program as well as its statewide counterpart. Tenants who apply for ERAP cannot be evicted because of an expired lease or for failure to pay rent in the last two years. The program also protects tenants whose landlord refuses to provide the information needed to complete an application or accept the funds.

“There was a time when evictions were closer to 5,000 annually in city court,” he said. “Things are backing themselves up in courts across the state.” 

But some of the most significant tenant protections as currently structured and proposed rely on two things: legal interpretations and tenants’ articulation of their rights in court.

Lawmakers from Onondaga County have introduced and sponsored legislation meant to help tenants deal with eviction and housing disrepair. 

Democrat Pamela Hunter, who was re-elected to the State Assembly’s 128th District in November, was the sponsor of the state’s good cause eviction bill. State Sen. Rachel May, another Democrat from Syracuse, co-sponsored the bill.

Sen. Rachel May thanks supporters at Democratic headquarters at the Marriott Syracuse Downtown, Nov. 8, 2022. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Though the bill did not make it onto the floor for a vote in either of the state’s legislative chambers last session, housing advocates lauded it for offering a cornerstone to any eviction defense in court.

The bill gives tenants a baseline “right to remain” by prohibiting eviction where the tenant is not at fault. It defines “good cause” as substantial violations of a lease, such as failure to pay rent or serious destruction of property. The legislation also calls on landlords to legally justify rent increases greater than 3% with a “good cause.”

Palmer Harvey, a co-founder of the Syracuse Tenants Union, was one of several Syracuse tenant advocates who traveled to Rochester to rally in support of a new statewide push for the passage of “good cause” in the coming legislative session.

“Most of Syracuse’s eviction cases are because of non-payment disputes, but that obscures the world of reasons behind the disputes,” Harvey said “You could have a dispute with the landlord about poor housing conditions. Some tenants just don’t pay because landlords just flat out haven’t fixed their properties in years.”

Sen. May said “good cause” could help in situations where landlords act in retaliation against tenants for reporting poor housing conditions to the city’s Division of Code Enforcement.  

“Landlords would say, ‘well, that’s our right, it’s our property,’” May said. “But to them I would say that we as a society and as a community have a very strong interest in housing stability. Having landlords churn tenants in and out is not good for us as a society. If you’re living in the place, and you are upholding your side of the bargain, you shouldn’t be evicted.”

May also introduced the Tenant Dignity and Safe Housing Act, a bill that would allow tenants to start special court proceedings seeking housing repairs or monetary judgments against the property owner.

As of now, tenants can only raise concerns in court about the disrepair of the structure if they are in the process of being evicted. 

“We’re setting up a system where the tenants, in a very simple process, can initiate a hearing in court to point out unsafe conditions in their home,” May said. “They could be granted an order to withhold rent until it is fixed, or get a money judgment from the landlord to fix it themselves.”

The bill, sponsored in the Assembly by Democrat Bill Magnarelli, of Syracuse, sailed through both chambers of the Legislature, but has not yet made it to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk.

Evictions play out in the local court system

The effectiveness of both bills in some ways depends on tenants’ ability to invoke these protections in court and in disputes with their landlord. In some cases it also depends on how a local judge considers the law.

For example, in the 13 counties Legal Services operates, which amounts to more than 300 courts, some judges have decided to not uphold the protections afforded by ERAP.

Darlene Medley leads protesters in a demonstration at her rented property on {ond St. in Syracuse. Photo by Mike Greenlar | The Central Current.

“We have encountered judges who think that that law doesn’t apply in their court,” Kaufman said. “It’s a frustrating thing because they’re imposing their own preferences to overrule the law. There are also a number of landlord attorneys out there who are making what they believe are legitimate legal arguments suggesting ERAP protections don’t apply to their case.”

Judges’ differing rulings make it especially difficult for tenants with no representation.

“They don’t know what the remedy is, so they eventually either leave as quickly as they can, or the marshal will come and put them out,” Kaufman said.

The State’s Unified Court System estimates there are approximately 3,150 judges and justices, and about half are elected to town and village courts. Kaufman estimates only about a third of state judges are law-trained, leaving tenants in court sometimes without either an advocate or a judge that knows the law.

Harvey said she sees the work of the tenants union and other organizations like the STOP! Coalition as vital to teaching tenants about their rights, as well as the legal resources available.

“This is why we try to go in the neighborhoods and go door to door,” she said.

Housing advocates are pushing for a ‘“right to counsel” law, to expand legal aid to tenants facing eviction in Upstate New York, as is currently provided in New York City.

“An eviction notice is a complicated and difficult procedure for a tenant to go through in court,” May said.

Kaufman expressed concern about whether there would be enough attorneys willing to take on the workload, given the number of cases heard throughout the state..

“It’s a market problem. For us, we want to be able to be effective with a right to counsel law,” he said. “People don’t just need a lawyer to necessarily go in there and negotiate a quick deal with the landlord’s lawyer. These cases have to be litigated. We need to do discovery, we’ve got to do some motions. That takes time and energy.”

New York City has struggled to find enough lawyers to represent tenants. Kaufman said attorneys there told him they initially were assigned as many as 75 cases every year.

“I’ve seen estimates that say we would need another 1,200 lawyers around the state doing this to fulfill that requirement,” he said. “We can probably reach around, at best, 40% of the people who would need our assistance.”

Because of the stress such an influx of cases would place on an already struggling system, Kaufman fears eviction proceedings would become similar to the interactions between a defendant and their criminal defense attorney.

“They created a system where everybody knows they are going to see their public defender for 30 minutes and then cut a deal without having to go to court,” he said. “Can we create a system in civil eviction cases that avoids that stuff? I am afraid I don’t know we can.” 

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Follow Eddie Velazquez @ezvelazquez.