Tenants' Rights: Common Mistakes

Why Do Landlords Need to Understand Tenants' Rights?

It is important for landlords to have a good working knowledge of tenants' rights in order to protect their rental businesses. Whether intentional or not, violating a tenant's rights can prove to be a costly mistake, impacting your bottom line and potentially damaging your reputation. Understanding the basics of landlord-tenant law can help you to prevent these errors. 

Tenants' Rights: 10 Common Landlord Mistakes

1. Substandard Housing Conditions

Under the Albany Renter's Bill of Rights, tenants have the right to live in housing that is free from code violations and meets basic standards of living. In addition, every rental property in Albany should have a valid Residential Occupancy Permit (ROP). 

Tenants have the right to bring up any maintenance issues with their landlords. If their landlord does not address the problem, tenants have the right to make a formal housing complaint to the City of Albany.

To keep both landlords and tenants safe, serious repairs and renovations must by done by a licensed professional and with a City building permit. Click here to learn more about City permitting. 

2. Retaliation

It is illegal to retaliate against a tenant for exercising their rights, to include: making a housing complaint, joining a tenants' union, applying for assistance, etc. Retaliation sometimes looks like:

  • Harassment, intimidation, or threats (these can be verbal or physical)
  • Filing an eviction against a tenant without a valid reason (without "good cause")
  • Refusing to renew a tenant's lease because they called code enforcement
  • Extreme rent increases as retribution
  • Charging bogus fees, e.g. a fine for calling code enforcement

3. Discrimination

In New York State, it is illegal for a landlord to treat tenants differently or refuse to rent to someone because of their:

  • Race and/or ethnicity
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability (including mental health conditions)
  • Familial status (such as whether or not a tenant is married or has children)
  • Source of income
  • Service or emotional support animal

Did You Know? Blanket policies such as "No Section 8" and "no children" are actually illegal in New York State.

4. Illegal Lease Provisions

A landlord should not propose a lease that violates the tenant's rights or prohibits the tenant from exercising their rights under the law. The following are some examples of illegal lease provisions that have been used by landlords in the Albany area:

  • "Landlord has the right to enter the unit at any time, for any reason."
  • "This property is being rented 'as-is.'"
  • "Children and guests are prohibited from the unit."
  • "Making a housing complaint to any other source [besides the landlord] will result in penalties."
  • "You agree to hold the landlord harmless and to refrain from taking legal action against the landlord."
  • "If rent is late, you will be charged $50 per day in late fees until it is paid."

If you are unsure of whether your prospective lease would violate your tenant's rights, consult an attorney for further guidance. 

5. Ignoring an Escrow Notification

Tenants have the right to withhold rent due to unremedied code violations in their unit. If a landlord fails to provide their tenant with a safe, livable, and sanitary dwelling, the tenant has the right to pay their rent into a separate bank account, rather than to the landlord -- this is called paying in escrow. If a tenant informs you that they will be withholding rent until violations are fixed, the proper remedy would be to make the necessary repairs (rather than filing for eviction or retaliating against the tenant). 

6. Failing to Provide Proper Notice

If you are going to raise a tenant's rent, or if you wish to terminate their lease, you must provide them with proper written notice of the change. The amount of time you need to give the tenant depends on how long they have lived in the unit:

  • If the tenant has lived there for less than a year, a 30-day notice is required.
  • If the tenant has lived there for 1-2 years, a 60-day notice is required. 
  • If the tenant has lived there for 2 or more years, a 90-day notice is required. 

7. Unlawful Evictions

In New York State, it is a misdemeanor crime to unlawfully evict a tenant. An unlawful eviction refers to actions taken by a landlord to remove a tenant from the property, outside of the normal eviction court process. The following are some examples of illegal evictions: 

  • Demanding a tenant leave through threats, harassment, or intimidation
  • Changing the locks on the apartment without a court warrant
  • Shutting off the utilities to the unit
  • Damaging the unit to the point that it is not safe to live in
  • Barricading doors or windows

You should be aware that you may be subject to arrest and prosecution for violating this statute.

8. Failing to Return Security Deposits

A security deposit consists of tenant funds held by the landlord to cover any expenses that the tenant may cause (e.g. property damage, unpaid rent). However, it is important to recognize that this money still legally belongs to the tenant. It should be held in a separate account and should not be co-mingled with the landlord's own monies.

When a tenant moves out, you are automatically required to return their security deposit to their last know address (or their forwarding address, if one was provided). You are allowed to withhold all or part of the funds to cover any unpaid rent or damages; however, if you do keep any portion of the deposit, you are required to send the tenant an itemized list of deductions

Tenants should not be charged automatic fees or deductions for "cleaning" or "redecorating," unless the condition of the apartment upon move-out warrants such charges. In addition, normal wear and tear that comes from living in a unit should not be considered property damage. Some examples of normal wear and tear include: small nail holes, minor scuffs or scratches on walls or floors, and negligible stains on carpets. 

9. Entering Without Notice

Most leases do require the tenant to grant their landlord access to the unit for certain purposes, such as: 

  • Making repairs or performing maintenance
  • Showing the unit to a potential buyer or tenant
  • Allowing code inspectors to visit the unit

However, if you plan on entering an occupied unit, you must give the tenant at least 24 hours' written notice. Furthermore, you only have the right to entry during "reasonable hours", which generally refers to standard business hours (approximately 9 AM to 5 PM, Monday - Friday).

These rules do not apply in emergency situations (e.g. a gas leak, fire, or burst pipe) -- landlords may enter immediately in these scenarios.

10. Overcharging Late Fees

Landlords can only charge late fees after the rent is late by at least 5 days, and only if the fees are explained in the lease that the tenant signed. In addition, there are caps on late fee amounts in New York State: landlords are only allowed to charge fees up to $50, or 5% of the monthly rent (whichever is less).

The Monthly Rent Is...The Maximum Allowable Late Fee Is...
$1,000 or more$50