Marauding landlords are an ongoing problem in Ithaca’s student community. Every year, I hear stories about landlords withholding security deposits or charging students for repairs, which fall under landlord obligations. The average student can probably find multiple “unconscionable,” or illegal, clauses in their lease. But let’s be honest, many of us don’t bring our lease to a tenant lawyer, because it is expensive, and don’t have a thorough understanding of landlord tenant law until we find ourselves in a bind.
For example, the renter’s deposit is the property of the student, it’s never the property of the landlord, so it can only be used for two purposes under New York state law: either unpaid rent or damages beyond “normal wear and tear.” I would also add that under Ithaca city code, the burden of proof regarding damages to an apartment falls upon the landlord, and students shouldn’t have to prove any damage to the apartment. Further, landlords are financially responsible for maintenance and plumbing issues, not tenants. Any upkeep of the apartment is the financial responsibility of the owner, not the renter.
Most leases also have several unconscionable clauses to which the tenant can’t be held. A common example is when the landlord states that the tenant may not withhold rent for any reason. Under New York state law, a tenant may withhold rent if needed repairs aren’t being made.
Lease issues are another common problem with landlords. As Ithaca small-claims courts have become overrun by tenants in battle with local landlords, local schools have made web pages entirely devoted to the issue of tenant rights. The City of Ithaca has tried to solve this issue by creating committees, such as the Rental Housing Advisory Commission, to oversee local rentals. A potential resource for students is an extensive and informative page on tenant rights and resources, offered on Ithaca College’s Office of Residential Life’s web page.
Another common example is late fees. New York state case law has determined that late fees in excess of 5 to 10 percent of monthly rent are unreasonable. An excessive late fee is also called a penalty, and New York state general obligations law does not allow a landlord to impose a penalty for late fees, including rent. Not only is this sort of conduct predatory, it is illegal.
As an alumna of the college and a graduate student at another local university, I have experienced this ongoing battle in Ithaca over the course of many years. Problems between students and landlords still prevail, and landlords in our community specifically target the students. To be blunt, I think many Ithaca landlords perceive the student population as ignorant and entitled. My hope is that by continuing to bring attention to the issue and targeting the offending landlords, those who prey on the student community will be more careful about the way that they conduct business in our community.