By Mandy Kraynak
New York state’s eviction moratorium, which had been in place since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, expired Jan. 15. During the moratorium, landlords could not file new eviction cases or proceed with pending cases if tenants signed a hardship declaration.
Now, eviction cases can resume. Tenants must be served with a 14-day notice and then wait 10 more days before appearing in court for an eviction trial. This means Feb. 8 was the earliest eviction cases could be held, said Sharon Sherman, the executive director of the Greater Syracuse Tenants Network.
“We’re expecting many, many evictions,” she said. “They’re going to start building now in February and will continue on at a very heavy level through March.”
Legal experts and tenant advocates advise tenants to save and document all notices and communication with landlords to improve chances of a positive outcome. Tenants who have received a notice to appear in court should also be proactive in seeking legal assistance and should get an attorney, experts and advocates said. Here’s what to know about the eviction process and the legal resources available in Syracuse.
Where to find legal resources
There are three primary legal service entities in Onondaga County providing legal assistance to tenants in the Syracuse area: Hiscock Legal Aid Society, Legal Services of Central New York and the Volunteer Lawyers Project.
Hiscock Legal Aid Society represents tenants in private landlord tenant housing in the city of Syracuse, which excludes Section 8 housing and other federal subsidies. The Volunteer Lawyers Project’s reach includes people who live in areas outside the city of Syracuse, as well as residents with Section 8 and subsidized housing. Legal Services of Central New York, which serves 13 counties in the region, also provides assistance to residents with Section 8 and other subsidies.
Hiscock Legal Aid Society provides full representation to tenants, from counsel and advice before a case starts to the conclusion of an eviction case, said Robert Rubinstein, the lead landlord-tenant attorney for the organization.
The three agencies collaborate and work together, Rubinstein added.
“Any tenant who wants any kind of advice, they can reach out to any of us. If we’re not the correct office based on the type of housing, we’ll make sure that they get connected,” Rubinstein said. “We’re here to help, and we’re happy to do so.”
What to expect during the eviction process
A typical eviction case starts with a landlord serving the appropriate notice to the tenant. The notice and the timeline for an eviction case varies depending on if it is a holdover or a non-payment eviction. A non-payment eviction case is an eviction case that a landlord brings due to a tenant not paying their rent. A holdover is an eviction that takes place for a reason other than rent not being paid. Non-payment proceedings typically take around 30 days from start to finish, and holdover actions usually take around 50-55 days, Rubinstein said.
The intake process at Hiscock Legal Aid Society takes place over the phone. Tenants can call the agency’s main number at (315) 422-8191 and ask to be connected to the intake line. The organization connects tenants with the Department of Social Services to see if there are ways to prevent an eviction before it goes to court and works to open a line of communication with the tenant’s landlord or the landlord’s attorney. For many tenants, though, their first contact with the aid society begins at the courthouse, Rubinstein says.
“We offer our services to tenants who are at court, and usually we’ll have the case adjourned for 14 days so we can connect with that tenant to figure out what is the best way forward, whether it’s working out an agreement between them and the landlord for a time to move or some kind of payment schedule, a payment plan or just figuring out what the defenses are to the case in order to have the case dismissed,” Rubinstein said.
When they are in court, tenants have legal defenses that can help prevent eviction. The Tenant Safe Harbor Act, for example, protects tenants who experienced financial hardships during the pandemic that prevented them from paying rent. For this defense, tenants need to prove financial hardship.
If tenants live in a house or apartment that is not registered with the rent registry, as is required by Syracuse’s Code of Ordinances, landlords can issue a money judgment against the tenant, but they cannot collect rent or evict the tenant, said Mary Traynor, an organizer with the Syracuse Tenants Organizing for Power Coalition. Traynor is also an attorney who has represented tenants in Syracuse and New York City for about 20 years. She says it’s helpful for tenants to get an attorney for the legal defenses.
Organizing is also an important step that tenants can take, says Traynor, who helped start the Syracuse Tenants Union. The tenants union is one of three groups, along with the Syracuse Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Syracuse Democratic Socialists of America, that formed the STOP Coalition. Joining together with other tenants provides a community network and can shift power and create change, Traynor says. It begins and ends with organizing, Tryanor believes, noting legislation such as the Tenants Safe Harbor Act are the result of tenants organizing.
“No one really knows what tenants need other than tenants,” Traynor said. “And no one’s going to give it to them, so that’s the most important thing.”
Tenants should save every eviction-related notice and document all communication with their landlords, she advises. Tenants should keep a notebook to document and save printouts of text messages and emails, as well as notices and their envelopes that have the date they were sent.
She says as soon as the first notice arrives, tenants should immediately try to get a lawyer. Also, they need to be proactive by calling the legal aid agencies frequently. Tenants should also reach out to their landlords in writing as soon as a problem arises, such as to let their landlord know that they were laid off from their job. It’s not a legal defense, but can help tenants’ relationships with their landlord, she said.
“This stuff, it’s tedious,” she said. “But if you go to court and you haven’t done any of this, it’s really hard to make any kind of case, even though you might have a really good case.”
Mandy Kraynak is a senior Newspaper and Online Journalism major at the Newhouse School