Please give this document time to load. It is a large file.
PART 2 OF 3, PAGES 31 - 60
How to Verify Information
Many landlords are surprised to receive calls from other landlords inquiring about the quality of a past tenant. Apparently it doesn't happen often enough. As one landlord put it, “you can spend $100 in time and money up front or be stuck with thousands later.” As another put it, “99% of these problems can be avoided through effective screening. There is no better investment you can make.”
As you review the following list, keep in mind that you will not have to do every step for each applicant, but the basics, written in bold letters, should be done every time. If you implement no other recommendations in this manual, implement these:
(Title companies and real estate brokers typically have ready access to this information as well.) If the name matches the one provided by the applicant, you have the actual landlord.
If the name on the application doesn't match with tax rolls, it could still be legitimate - sometimes tax rolls are not up to date, property has changed hands, the owner is buying the property on a contract, or a management company has been hired to handle landlord responsibilities. But most of these possibilities can be verified. If nothing else, a landlord who is not listed as an owner on the tax rolls should be familiar with the name of person who is listed - so ask when you call.
Another approach for verifying the name of the previous landlord is available in the case of applicants who were on the Section 8 program at their last address. In such a situation a landlord can verify both the previous address and the name of the previous landlord through the Rental Assistance Corporation Authority.
Now you have verified the landlord's name, address, and perhaps even phone number. If the applicant gave you information that was intentionally false, deny the application. If the information matches, call the previous landlords.
Remember, if the applicant is currently renting somewhere else, the present landlord may have an interest in moving the tenant out and may be less inclined to speak honestly. In such an instance, your best ally is the landlord before that - the one who is no longer involved with the tenant. Be sure you locate and talk to a past landlord with no current interest in the applicant.
Also, if you suspect the person is not the actual landlord, ask about various facts listed on the application that a landlord should know - the address or unit number previously rented, the zip code of the property, the amount of rent paid. If the person is unsure, discourage requests to call you back - offer to stay on the line while the information is looked up.
Some landlords will avoid the entire form and notarization process by requiring that applicants visit the law enforcement agency directly, get a copy of their own record, and bring it back to the landlord. However, such a process may have the undesirable effect of causing some qualified applicants to object to the extra process and choose not to apply.
Your chances for getting verifiable information are best if you have the applicant's name, date of birth, social security number, and current address.
One cautionary note: many attorneys advise that conviction - but not arrest - may be used as a basis for rejecting an applicant. Patterns of arrest have proved to be discriminatory against protected classes and, as such, would be inappropriate to use as a screening criterion.
Finally, resist the urge to rely too heavily on this screening technique - there are many drug criminals who have not yet been convicted of a crime.
Federal and County Housing Beneficiaries
The Section 8 Program. “Few landlords realize it, but you can screen a subsidized applicant the same way you screen any applicant. Most don't screen subsidized applicants for rental history - either because they don't know they can, or because they are too excited about the guaranteed rent check.” “For landlords the message is simple. Bottom line, if you screen your tenants, Section 8 is a very good program.” - A Section 8 Program Director.
The Section 8 Tenant Based Renter Assistance Programs. Section 8 Programs are funded by the federal government and regulated through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In Erie County there are three Public Housing Agencies (PHA's) administering rental assistance programs: Belmont Shelter Corp., Rental Assistance Corp (RAC) and Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. HUD recently consolidated the renter assistance programs into one program, the Housing Choice Voucher Program.
A Family's eligibility for a Housing Choice Voucher is based on their gross annual income. The voucher helps eligible families to access modest housing by filing the gap between reasonable rents and the amount very low-income families can afford to pay for rent and utilities.
Once a family has been selected from the wait list, determined eligible and issued a voucher, the task remains to locate a privately owned apartment where the owner is willing to participate in the program. Belmont pays a subsidy (Housing assistance Payment or HAP) based primarily on the family's monthly income directly to the owner and the remainder of the rent is paid by the tenant.
Some Benefits of the Section 8 Program:
What Owners Should Know:
A CHECKLIST FOR HOUSING QUALITY STANDARDS
All units must be “decent, safe and sanitary” according to Housing Quality Standards in order to be approved for Section 8 assistance. This checklist will help you to determine if the unit will meet basic inspection guidelines.
PLEASE REVIEW THIS CHECKLIST AND MAKE NECESSARY REPAIRS BEFORE AN INSPECTION IS SCHEDULED. UNFORTUATELY, WE ARE UNABLE TO CONDUCT AN INSPECTION TO REVIEW THIS LIST WITH YOU.
Please be advised that Belmont CANNOT conduct an inspection unless:
MOST COMMON FAIL ITEMS
____ Are the windows and frames in good condition: no broken or cracked glass? Do they remain open unassisted? Do all windows on the ground floor have an operable lock?
____ Is there a handrail for all stairways with four or more steps/risers? (If you lift your foot 4 or more times a handrail is needed). Does the handrail extend the length of the stairway?
____ Is there a working smoke detector installed on every level of the building? Is a smoke detector located near the sleeping areas of the apartment as well as in the attic and basement?
____ Is there a shut-off valve on the furnace and hot water heater? Do all hot water heaters and all boilers have a pressure relief valve and a discharge line to within five inches of the floor?
____ Are all painted surfaces free from chipping, peeling and cracking? (required: children under 6)
____ Are all walls, ceilings and floors in good condition?
____ Is all the plumbing in unit working properly and free from leaks?
____ Do the furnace and the hot water heater work properly and are they in good condition?
____ Does the furnace provide adequate heat for all rooms, including the bathroom?
____ Is the immediate neighborhood free from conditions which pose a threat to health and safety?
____ Does the unit have at least 2 exits?
____ Are all rooms and halls well-lit with natural or artificial light to prevent injury?
____ Are all rooms free from electrical or other hazards?
____ Do all porches and balconies that are 30 inches or more above the ground have a secure railing?
____ Are all of the utilities (gas, electric, water) that the tenant will be responsible for separately metered?
____ Are there cover plates on all switches and outlets?
____ Are all electrical connections injunction boxes with covers?
____ Are the house and yard free from trash and other debris?
____ If there is a fuse box, are there any fuses larger than 20 amp? Please replace; 20 -amp maximum.
____ Are there at least two working duplex electrical outlets or one duplex outlet and one permanently mounted light fixture?
____ Is there at least one window? If openable, does it stay open unassisted?
____ Do the stove and refrigerator work properly? Are all stove controls present?
____ Is there at least one duplex and one permanently mounted light fixture?
____ Is there adequate space for storage and food preparation?
____ Are the tub, sink, shower and toilet in good condition and working properly?
____ Is there an openable window and/or a working exhaust fan in all bathrooms?
____ Is there a permanently mounted light fixture?
____ Are there enough bedrooms for the family? (no more than two people per living/sleeping area)
____ Is there an openable window in each bedroom, and if it is on the ground floor, can it be locked?
____ Does it remain open unassisted?
____ Are there two working duplex electrical outlets, or one duplex outlet and one permanently mounted light fixture in each bedroom?
____ Are all spliced wires enclosed in a junction box with a cover?
____ Are all unused gas lines capped?
____ Is there a working smoke detector in the basement?
____ Are all knife switches in all fuse boxes covered?
____ Are there any broken windows?
____ Is there trash and/or debris in basement?
____ Are there any combustible material within three feet of the hot water tank or furnace?
NOTE: WE EXPECT THE UNIT TO PASS THE FIRST INSPECTION. In the event the unit does not pass inspection, a summary sheet will be sent to the landlord and tenant. Once Belmont is notified that the work is completed, our office will schedule a re-inspection as soon as possible.
If you have any questions or need more information, contact the Inspections Department at 884-7791.
Erie County Department of Social Services. The Department of Social Services, as the primary source of income for welfare recipients, plays a unique role in the rental market. Thus, we have started new policies to bring more fairness and accountability into this process for both landlords and tenants. These new policies include:
Because we expect a large demand for new one-party checks, this change will be phased in over time. Recipients who are already receiving rent payments through a two-party check will not be given the new payment option until they move to a new address or appear for their re -certification interview.
This requirement will give the Department the opportunity to mail out a notice to landlords approximately 20-25 days prior to the change occurring and would provide some protection to landlords with a more timely notice of changes to these payments. In the case of an emergency or a valid tenant -landlord dispute, there are exceptions to this requirement.
Current rules that limit how much we can pay for rent and under what circumstances remain in effect. This means that in most cases the Department cannot make a direct payment without the client's written request and cannot pay more than the New York State set shelter rate without the client's permission.
The Department of Social Services has created a special hotline for property owners to call if they have questions about their new polices. The number is 858 -RENT (858-7368). This number will be available from 10:00am until 4:00pm, Monday through Friday.
Regarding “Borderline” Applicants
The preceding criteria include a number of examples where exceptions are made in borderline cases if the applicant can provide a co-signer. Alternately, some flexibility can also be introduced by setting rules that require borderline applicants to provide larger deposits or more prepaid rent. Introducing such flexibility to your application process can make sure, for example, that you do not turn down good applicants who have a single, justifiable problem on their credit report. Use of such borderline conditions can result in a more fair process for your applicants as well. As with all aspects of managing rental housing, apply your policies for borderline applicants consistently regardless of the protected class of the applicant.
How to Turn Down an Applicant
In general, if you have posted fair rental criteria and you screen all applicants against those criteria, you may safely reject an applicant who does not meet your guidelines. Opinions vary regarding the amount of information that is required to be given to an applicant who is denied a rental unit. (Note: if you are managing public housing or publicly subsidized units, your disclosure requirements may be greater than the ones described here.) We recommend, at the minimum, following the guidelines defined by the federal government in the Fair Credit Reporting Act for denial of credit. Check to see if your local jurisdiction requires additional disclosure.
The following is intended as a general overview of how it works for two different types of applicant rejections. See the law itself for an exact description: ⑥
Sample wording: “Based on a check of information you provided in your application, you do not meet our posted rental criteria. If you have questions about this decision, you may submit a request in writing to (your name and address) within 60 days, and we will explain the basis for the decision within a reasonable period of time.”
Of course, if you receive such a request, then report the nature of the information upon which the adverse decision was based. Again, if your screening criteria are free of illegal discrimination and you have applied your criteria consistently, then you may safely reject applicants who do not measure up.
Note this small additional requirement if the rejection is based on information from a person who is your “affiliate” (e.g. a co-worker or co-owner): The process is identical to that described above, except that the required response time is specifically stated: 30 days or less from the date the landlord receives the rejected applicant's written request.
Of course, when possible, keep it simple. For example, if you are turning down an applicant simply because you accepted an earlier applicant, just say so. Or, if one look at the application indicates that the person doesn't have nearly enough income to rent the unit, don't make the applicant wait a week to find out - again, just say so.
⑥ For more information, contact the Federal Trade Commission by phone at (202)326-3128, or by mail at: 6th Street & Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20580. A full copy of the text of the FCRA can be obtained over the Internet at http://www.ftc.gov.
In situations where adverse decisions are based, in whole or in part, on information from a consumer credit report, a landlord is required to provide the rejected applicant all of the following information:
(Note: Have applicants get a copy of their consumer report directly from the credit reporting agency, rather than, for example, providing the applicant with a photocopy of the report you received.)
Again, in the interests of proving you have met disclosure requirements, you may want to hand out an information sheet with the disclosure process described and appropriate addresses provided. Contact a local property management association for more details, and again, check your local law for additional disclosure requirements.
Other Screening Tips and Warning Signs
The following are additional tips to help you screen applicants. You should also be familiar with the warning signs described in the chapter on Warning Signs of Drug Activity.
The interview involves, at minimum, making sure the applicant can repeat basic information requested on the application form without reading it. For example, the landlord might ask the applicant to verify his or her full name, current phone number, current address, and other pieces of information that most honest applicants will be familiar with without having to look up.
As with all policies you set, if you decide to do application interviews, you should include a commitment to making reasonable accommodations for those who cannot comply due to status in a protected class - e.g., a handicap that causes a speech problem, or possibly language skills associated with a particular national origin.
If you choose not to use an interview approach, at minimum observe the way the application is filled out. Applicants may not remember the address of the apartment they were in two years ago, but they should know where they live now, or just came from. Generally, honest applicants can remember their last address, the name of their current landlord, and other typically “top -of -mind” facts about their life.
Assuming you have communicated your commitment to keeping illegal activity off your property, such a rule may also allow dishonest or dangerous applicants to exit with minimal confrontation - without an application in hand they are less likely to pursue making up a story and, once off the premises, they may simply choose not to return.
Again, if you use such a policy, make sure it includes making reasonable accommodation for people whose particular handicap, or other protected characteristic, would otherwise result in the policy being a barrier to application.
While you may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, national origin, familial status (the presence of children), marital status, age, and in the City of Buffalo, sexual orientation, you may discriminate on the basis of many other factors, provided the effect is not a disproportionate denial of a protected class. If you deny the applicant for such a reason, record your evidence and the reason for your decision. Be careful when making decisions in this area, but don't assume your hands are tied. The law is written to prevent discrimination against protected classes. You are not required to look the other way when gross inconsistencies are apparent.
Warning applicants that they will be held accountable for their household members and guests, and then enforcing such a requirement with your tenants, is a cornerstone of protecting your property and the surrounding neighborhood. Make sure your tenants know that they must control their household members and guests, and if they cannot, they should ask for help quickly. Tenants must understand that lease violations committed by non -tenants who are on the property with the permission of the tenant can bear the same consequences as would apply if the same act were committed directly by the tenant. Further, your rental agreement can set some limitations on the number of additional occupants who may move in with the tenant, however the State of New York's “roommate law” (RPL § 235(f)) does not permit a landlord to restrict occupancy to those on the rental agreement only (for more on this topic, see the discussion on this point in the chapter on Rental Agreements, page 46).
Also, if the applicant shows little interest in, any of the property except the electrical service, take note - both meth labs and marijuana grow operations can include rewiring efforts.
If you are going to consider such an approach, keep in mind that fair housing guidelines apply in all aspects of managing rental housing, including advertising selection. Advertising through community colleges only may be acceptable, because such colleges typically enroll a broad cross-section of the community. But, for example, it would be inappropriate to advertise exclusively through a church newsletter or through the newsletter of a private club whose membership is not representative of the greater community. Such approaches could set up patterns of inappropriate discrimination. Either expand your media selection or change it altogether to make sure you are reaching a fair cross-section of the public.
A Note about Hiring Employees
Many rental property owners hire employees to assist with tenant screening, routine maintenance, and other tasks. It is critical that resident managers and other “agents” of the landlord be screened even more thoroughly than applicants for tenancy. In general, when an employee breaks the law while on duty, both the employee and the employer can be held responsible by the party that is harmed by the action. When the employee violates an element of rental housing law, the liability you will hold for employee misbehavior should be reason enough for extra screening efforts.
One screening tool that you will want to seriously consider for job applicants is a criminal conviction check, even if you don't check criminal backgrounds on prospective renters. Once property managers are hired, make certain they are trained in effective applicant screening, along with the warning signs of dishonest applicants. Also, be sure they understand, and follow, the requirements of fair housing laws.
Get it in writing.
ADVICE WE WERE GIVEN:
“We've solved a lot of problems by using the right paperwork at the beginning of the rental term - it improves our legal position and it lets the tenant know we are serious from the start.”
Minimize misunderstandings between you and your tenant, thus building a basis for clean and fair problem resolution down the road.
Use a Current Rental Agreement
In New York, even more than in most states, the quality of the rental agreement ⑦ is the cornerstone of the landlord's legal ability to maintain appropriate control over rental property. With a well -constructed rental agreement (and a commitment to enforcing it), a landlord can expect to keep most problem behavior from getting out of hand and good tenants can expect to enjoy a rental community that is free of chronic crime and nuisance problems caused by adjacent tenants or their guests.
Unfortunately, some landlords don't use a rental agreement at all, and many continue to use the same rental agreement they started with years ago. Federal and state law can change yearly, and case law is in constant evolution. By using an outdated rental agreement, a landlord may be giving up important rights. If a problem tenant chooses to fight in court, an outdated rental agreement could cost the landlord the case.
Sources for up-to-date rental agreements will vary by state. In many areas property management associations provide rental forms and consider it their job to make sure they are consistent with current law. Local legal document publishing companies may also be good sources for effective rental agreements. Some landlords use a custom -developed rental agreement designed in partnership with an attorney or a New York -tailored rental agreement commonly available at stationery stores. If you plan to use an “off the shelf” rental agreement, make sure that you are buying a form developed specifically for use in the state of New York. “Generic” rental agreements, sold nationwide, will not work as well as more tailored agreements.
⑦ In this chapter the term “rental agreement” refers to both long-term residential leases, as well as month-to-month style agreements.
Month-To-Month, Or Long-Term Lease?
Throughout Buffalo, a landlord can use a month-to-month rental agreement that allows either party to terminate the tenancy without specifying a cause by giving at least a month's notice. ⑧ (Although this option is available in most private party rental situations, it is generally not available in situations where a tenant's rent is either publicly subsidized or regulated by rent control laws.)
While the maximum power to evict is gained by using a month-to-month rental agreement whenever it is legal to do so, such an arrangement may not be the best in every situation. Market factors, as well as the expectations of local landlords and tenants, will also play a role in determining the best approach.
Regardless of the type of agreement used, keep in mind that no tenant is protected from a landlord's enforcement action if the tenant repeatedly fails to comply with a legal provision of a lease or rental agreement. If tenants are in violation of key elements of New York State's landlord -tenant laws, or are not in compliance with the lease, a landlord may require the behavior to be corrected and, if it isn't, terminate the rental agreement and require the tenant to move out.
Also, while the terms of your rental agreement are important, even the best rental agreement is not as valuable as effective applicant screening. The most important part of any rental agreement is the character of the people who sign it. No amount of legal documentation can replace the value of finding good tenants.
Elements to Emphasize
Inspect the rental agreement you use to see if it has language addressing the following provisions. If they are not in the rental agreement, consider adding them. To gain the most prevention value, you will need to point out the provisions to your tenant and communicate that you take your rental agreement seriously.
Note that this list is not at all comprehensive - it only represents elements that are occasionally overlooked and are particularly important for preventing and/or terminating drug-related tenancies. The discussion offered below is intended to be general in nature and is not intended to be used as a template for specific lease language. The actual language used to express the concepts described below varies substantially in some of the New York leases reviewed for this project.
⑧ The definition of “a month's notice” is described in the following manner. “Either party may terminate a month-to-month tenancy by giving at least one month's notice before the expiration of the term. For example, suppose rent is due on the first day of each month. The landlord must tell the tenant by September 30th before the October rent is due that he wants the tenant to move out by November 1st.”
⑨ Under New York law, in buildings that have 4 or more units, a landlord cannot unreasonably withhold consent to sublet. Note that, in buildings with three units or fewer, landlord could use a lease clause that forbids subletting entirely. Nevertheless, permitting subleasing if the applicant meets screening requirements seems to be a reasonable approach in any size unit.
You must maintain control over your property - too often the people who run the drug operation are not the people who rented the unit. This provision will not stop all efforts to sublease, but it may prevent some and it will put you in a stronger position if you have to deal with a problem subtenant.
In addition to generally requiring compliance with the law's allowable limits, two elements are particularly important to emphasize in the lease:
An exception to the “roommate” law requirement is found in publicly assisted housing, because in this case, the Federal guidelines take precedence over the State guidelines. In the state of New York, a landlord of HUD assisted housing - including, in this case, Section 8 tenants - could set some restrictions that private landlords cannot. For example, in public and Section 8 housing, a New York landlord can deny the right of any additional adult resident - immediate family member or not - to move into a rental unless the tenant meets the requirements that the Housing Authority will have for such an occurrence, which will include among other issues, disclosure of that additional adult's income.
⑩ To be exact, if only one tenant is recognized by the lease, that person may move in both immediate family members and one additional occupant as described above. However, if two or more tenants sign the lease, while each may move in immediate family members, a landlord could forbid an additional “occupant” from moving in unless one of the tenants on the lease moves out.
⑪ RPL 235f
The reason why these issues are being raised in a manual on keeping illegal activity out of rental property is this: While most of the time that tenants invite additional people to move into a dwelling it is for appropriate reasons, there is also a high correlation between illegal drug activity and the presence of unidentified additional people living in a dwelling unit. Across the nation, the number one source of illegal drug activity from rental property is from the actions of people not on the rental agreement who have been permitted to dwell at the property by a legal tenant. Assuring your tenant that you will take these clauses seriously may curb illegal behavior by others. Having the stipulations spelled out in the rental agreement will put you in a better legal position should it become necessary to enforce.
For people who plan to “front” for illegal activity, this underscores the point that they will be given as little room as possible to protect themselves by claiming that acquaintances, and not themselves, were involved in the activity.
Wording on this provision should be done with care - you may not go so far as to hold victims responsible for the behavior of people who abused or intimidated them into silence.
What does disturbing the neighbors have to do with drug crimes? It doesn't necessarily. But we know that managers who attend to their own obligations and require tenants to meet theirs are far more effective in preventing drug activity than those who look the other way as complaints of noncompliance roll in. It is almost never the case that a drug criminal's first observed, evictable offense is the dealing or manufacturing of narcotics.
Pre -Move -In Inspection
Prior to signing the rental agreement, walk through the property with the tenant and make a visual inspection together. Some landlords use check in/check out forms developed for the purpose, others take photographs which are then signed by both parties, and still others make a pre -move -in video tape with the tenant. Regardless of the approach, agree on what repairs need to be done. Write down the agreement and have both parties sign it. Make any agreed-upon repairs and document that those have been completed as well. Give copies to your tenant and keep signed and dated copies in your files.
Note, if you are accepting Social Service applicants and wish to enter into a “Tenant Responsibility Agreement” this type of pre-move in inspection will be required on forms provided for the purpose.
Now, should your tenants damage the property, you have a way to prove it happened after they took possession of the unit. (Note: This also protects tenants - the pre-move -in inspection can prevent a bad landlord from trying to hold a tenant responsible for problems that predated the tenancy.)
The pre -move -in inspection can reduce the likelihood of some tenants causing damage to the premises. It can also protect you against the rare case of a tenant who may attempt to block a legitimate eviction attempt by damaging the premises and then claiming that the damage was preexisting.
Many apartment managers, as well as some single-family housing managers, provide “house rules” that spell out general rules of the property and its common areas. Generally, property managers have found success with development of guidelines that restrict excessive noise levels, define behavior for common areas of the premises, and spell out rules for use of unique facilities such as pools or common laundry areas.
In general, managers of apartments may set additional rules for those common areas that are, in effect, “occupied” by management, not tenants. For example, as the “occupant” of the common areas of an apartment complex, a manager may be able to ask police to remove visitors who are engaged in fights or other intimidating behavior taking place in the courtyard of the complex. In this instance, as in others, managers may exercise more direct, immediate control over problems in the common areas of the property than they can over problems occurring on or inside the specific, privately rented property.
⑫ See Real Property Actions & Proceedings Law §711.1
The following is an adaptation of “house rules” that have been used successfully to establish guidelines for regulating behavior in the common areas of rental property. In multifamily property, it is important to set rules for the common areas to ensure that the manager has the ability to exclude nonresidents and that the manager has established guidelines for the appropriate behavior of residents.
This is just one example of an approach. Prior to use, it should be modified for your needs and reviewed by your attorney.
If any tenant, household member, or guest of any tenant engages in any of the following prohibited activities, such activity shall be considered a violation of the tenant's lease. Any nonresident will be directed to leave if that person does one or more of the following prohibited activities. Prohibited activities include:
1. Making unreasonable noise.
2. Engaging in fighting or in violent, tumultuous, or threatening behavior.
3. Substantially interfering with any right, comfort, or convenience of any (Name of premises) resident or employee.
4. Engaging in any activity on or near the premises that constitutes a criminal offense.
5. Damaging, defacing, or destroying any property belonging to (Name of premises) or to any employee or resident.
6. Littering on (Name of premises) property.
7. Driving in a reckless manner on or near the property.
8. Consuming an alcoholic beverage in the common areas or possessing an open container of any alcoholic beverage in the common areas.
Any nonresident who fails to leave the premises after being directed to do so will be subject to arrest and prosecution for criminal trespass.
As a final prevention step, some landlords require that only a person listed on the written rental agreement may pick up the keys. This is one more step in ensuring that you are giving possession of the property to the people on the agreement and not to someone else.
What to do to keep the relationship working.
COMPLAINTS WE HAVE HEARD:
“The tenant moved out and someone else moved in without us knowing it. Now we have drug dealers on the property and the courts insist they are legal tenants, even though they never signed a lease.”
ADVICE WE WERE GIVEN:
“You need to follow one basic rule - you have to actively manage your property. The only landlords who go to court are the ones who don't actively manage their property.”
“For most property managers the experience is one of putting out brush fires all day long. If property managers can take a more proactive approach to the process, they can build an ever improving set of renters, avoid a lot of legal hassles, and have fewer brush fires during the day.”
“If your training teaches landlords nothing else, teach them that the neighbors in an area are not their enemies.”
Maintain the integrity of a good tenant/landlord relationship. Strengthen communications between the landlord, tenants, and neighbors. Help build a sense of community.
Don't Bend Your Rules
A key to ongoing management of your property is demonstrating your commitment to your rental agreement and to landlord -tenant law compliance. Once you set your rules, enforce them. Make sure you meet your responsibilities, and make sure you hold your tenants accountable for meeting theirs. By the time most drug problems are positively identified, there is a long history of evictable behavior that the landlord ignored.
Bottom line: If you respect the integrity of your own rules, the tenant will too. If you let things slide, the situation can muddy fast. It may mean more work up front, but once the tenant is used to your management style, you will be less likely to be caught by surprises.
For a legal description of the responsibilities of landlords and tenants, review your local landlord-tenant law, local maintenance codes, and the requirements of the Section 8 program if it applies to your units. Also - to state the obvious - if you haven't already, check your rental agreement. Rental agreements typically spell out various responsibilities of both the landlord and the tenant. The following is an overview of the typical responsibilities of both parties.
Landlords. A landlord's responsibilities typically fall into three areas: the condition of the premises as delivered to the tenant, the obligation to maintain the unit once it is occupied, and the obligation to respect the rights of the tenant. A landlord's responsibilities generally include:
Tenants. A tenant's responsibilities are fundamentally to ensure that no harm is done to the unit and to pay the rent. A tenant's responsibilities generally include:
A cornerstone of active management is the regular inspection. Unless you inspect, you can't be sure you are meeting your responsibility to provide safe and habitable housing. In addition, maintaining habitable property protects your rights as well. If a bad tenant can also claim that you are not meeting your responsibilities, you may have difficulty succeeding with an eviction. Conversely, if it is clear you make every effort to meet your responsibilities (and you document it), a tenant will be less inclined to fight an honest eviction effort.
While the purpose of a maintenance inspection is to care for the unit and ensure its habitability, regular inspections will also deter some types of illegal activity. For example, if tenants know that the landlord actively manages the property, they aren't likely to start making illegal modifications to the rental in order set up a marijuana grow operation. Further, inspections can help catch problems associated with illegal activity before they get out of hand. For example, it is common for drug dealers to cause damage to a rental unit that is way beyond “normal wear and tear” - a problem that could be observed, documented, and addressed through the process of a regular inspection program. Though early discovery of such damage is a possibility, the more frequent impact of an inspection program on illegal activity is basic prevention. Illegal activity is less likely to happen at property where the landlord has a reputation for concerned, active management.
The key to successful property inspection is avoiding the adversarial position sometimes associated with landlord-tenant situations. An inspection program done properly should be welcomed by your honest tenants. Steps include:
If the inspection is routine, keep the approach friendly. To help address all maintenance needs efficiently, ask tenants to take note of any concerns they have in advance of the inspection date. Again, when done appropriately, good tenants should appreciate your attention and concern for maintaining the unit.
Finally, note this caution: while the law permits a landlord to enter an occupied rental with reasonable prior notice, it does not permit the landlord to force his/her way into a unit when a tenant refuses that entry, even though appropriate prior notice was given. This is why a tenant's repeated failure to permit a landlord to enter, after receiving reasonable notice, should be defined in the lease as a serious violation of its terms and cause for termination. With such a lease clause in place, a landlord can then notify the tenant that unless entry into the unit is permitted, the lease will be terminated. Without such a clause in place, a landlord has less recourse in the face of a tenant's refusal to permit entry.
There are some instances when the shutting down of utilities is a symptom of drug activity - as dealers or heavy users get more involved in their drugs, paying bills can become less important.
Remember: If your lease has the appropriate language stipulating that the tenant is responsible for utility bills, and the tenant stops paying for those services, you have grounds for notifying the tenant that, unless the tenant gets back into compliance with the lease, the lease will be terminated, and should the tenant fail to then move out, eviction proceedings begun. This may be particularly important to do if shutting off the utility would result in the unit no longer meeting habitability standards.
Keep a Paper Trail
Verbal agreements carry little weight in court. The type of tenant who is involved in illegal activity and would choose to fight you in court will know that. So keep a record of your agreements and provide copies to the tenant. Just having tenants know that you keep records may be enough to motivate them to stay out of court. For example, most termination notices and lease violation notices that a landlord would serve on a tenant in the state of New York can be either written or oral, and served in a number of ways, so long as the notice is “timely, definitive, and unequivocal.” However, most authorities interviewed for this manual recommend written notices and emphasize the value of a keeping a paper trail over the relative ease of giving notices verbally. Essentially, it is important to keep documentation that shows your good -faith efforts to keep the property habitable, to give your tenants opportunities to correct lease violations, and to show any changing agreements with a tenant - ideally dated and signed by both parties.
Trade Phone Numbers with Neighbors
Landlords of single-family residential housing sometimes don't hear of dangerous or damaging activity on their property until neighbors have written to the mayor, or the police have served a search warrant. Quite often the situation could have been prevented if the landlord and area neighbors had established a better communications link.
Find neighbors who seem responsible, concerned, and reliable. Trade phone numbers and ask them to advise you of serious concerns. You'll know you have found the right neighbors when you find people who seem relieved to meet you and happy to discover you are willing to work on problems. Conversely, if neighbors seek you out, work with them and solicit their help in the same way.
Note that landlords and neighbors tend to assume their relationship will be adversarial. Disarm any such assumptions and get on with cooperating. If you both want the neighborhood to remain healthy and thriving, you are on the same side and have nothing to gain by fighting each other.
APARTMENT WATCH/PROMOTING COMMUNITY
How to turn an apartment complex into a community
COMPLAINTS WE HAVE HEARD:
“We already have an `apartment watch.' The tenants get together and watch the manager to see if I screw up!”
ADVICE WE WERE GIVEN:
“Please teach landlords that their good tenants can help.”
Good landlords and good tenants must learn to work together for the common goal of a safe community.
In multi -family units, unless your tenants report suspicious behavior, you may not find out about drug activity until the problem becomes extreme. Some people - tenants and homeowners alike - are frightened to report illegal activity until they discover the “strength in numbers” of joining a community watch organization. Whether you call your efforts “apartment watch,” “community pride,” or “resident retention programs,” the goal is the same: transforming an apartment complex into a community.
Organizing a community is more than just encouraging tenants to act as “eyes and ears.” In the absence of a sense of community, the isolation that residents feel can lead to apathy, withdrawal, anger - even hostility - toward the community around them. Organizing efforts can lead to profound changes: as apartment residents get to know each other and the manager, a sense of community - of belonging - develops, and neighbors and tenants are more willing to do what it takes to keep a neighborhood healthy.
Complexes that enjoy a sense of community often have more stable tenancies and lower crime problems than comparable complexes that are not organized. Managers who have initiated such efforts note these benefits:
• Lower turnover, leading to considerable savings.
• Less damage to property and lower repair bills.
• Reduced crime.
• A safer, more relaxed atmosphere for the tenants.
• A positive reputation for the complex, leading to higher quality applicants and, over time, increased property values.
The key to effective cooperative community building is to have the property manager take the lead and make sure the efforts are ongoing. Community organizing that is run entirely by tenants may have less long- term stability, simply because it is the nature of rental housing that tenant turnover will occur and key organizers will move on. For this reason, having the manager keep the program going is an important part of a successful program. Further, if management waits until the tenants are so fed up that they organize themselves, the relationship may be soured from the start. If management takes a proactive role in helping tenants pull together for mutual benefit, the opportunity for a positive working relationship is great. Tips include:
• Use name tags. This simple step is important in helping to break down the walls of unfamiliarity for newcomers.
• Begin any formal meeting by having people introduce themselves by name.
• Allow time at each event for people to socialize. Make sure that some of this time happens after the meeting agenda is underway. Once the event is underway, participants will have the shared experience of the meeting with which to start a conversation.
• Offer refreshments. Whether it is as simple as coffee and pastries or as involved as a potluck or a summer barbecue, free food can attract many to a meeting who might not otherwise have attended.
• Include activities for children and teenagers, as well as for adults. Getting children involved in games and other events will provide a positive experience for the children and help encourage parents to meet each other. Also, like adults, when children and teenagers get to know their resident manager better, they are more likely to share information. This is important because teenagers, in particular, may have information about a community problem of which the adults are unaware.
• Respond to issues that are a direct concern to a number of tenants. If there are immediate concerns, such issues should take priority over other potential agenda items. If tenants are concerned about gang violence in the neighborhood, less pressing topics may seem irrelevant.
• Provide new information about the local community. This could take any number of forms. You might invite merchants from the area, fire fighters, police officers, members of neighborhood associations or other community groups, social workers, employment counselors, or any number of other people who could share useful information with tenants.
Also, remember the importance of keeping meeting agendas on track, interesting, and focused on tangible, measurable outcomes. If tenants feel that meetings rarely address the published agenda, interest will shrink quickly.
Encourage nearby neighbors and apartment complexes to get involved. Solving the whole problem may require encouraging similar steps in adjacent apartment complexes or making sure