Landlords, tenants clash over eviction bills

Lawmakers heard several hours of emotional hearing testimony Jan. 26 on a pair of House bills aimed at reversing the impact of a state Supreme Court decision that last summer affirmed the right of apartment tenants to stay put after their lease runs out if they’ve complied with it.

Most of the speakers were allies of low-income tenants and the homeless.

House Bill 1388 automatically allows eviction of a renter the day after a lease expires and lets a landlord demand a two-month security deposit to cover potential damages to the apartment and any costs to remove an uncooperative tenant. The bill also requires renters to tell their landlord in writing of all repairs needed within the first five days of occupancy or become responsible for them.

HB 1548 allows eviction without due cause at the end of a lease.

Neither bill applies to commercial or industrial tenants, but both sides agreed the legislation would have a wide impact on the business sector. One of the issues at stake is the best way to provide enough workforce housing.

Landlord groups said the two bills would protect building owners from bad tenants.

Tenants and their spokespersons opposed both bills and said HB 1388 in particular would increase homelessness. They said it’s hard now to save a one-month deposit for average rentals in the $900-to-$1,000 range.

Attorney Elliott Berry of New Hampshire Legal Assistance said the June 22 high court decision in Aimco v. Kasha Dziewsz upheld a 1985 law that safeguarded tenants from arbitrary eviction just because their lease lapses.

“The state had 6,000 homeless people last year for 48 days on average, and 44 percent were kids,” Berry said. “If you require $2,000 and $3,000 security deposits, you can call this the Homelessness Promotion Act of 2006.”

Several emergency shelter operators said the bigger deposit would expand their caseloads and shift costs to town welfare budgets.

Attorney John Cronin represents the Apartment Owners Association, which speaks
for 12,000 units of housing. He said a lease is a contract like any other and protects both parties. When it runs out, it runs out.

“The bill takes away the incentive to offer a lease to anyone,” Cronin warned. “The owner would do better to make them all tenants at will.”

Attorney Brian Shaughnessy often represents landlords, but also serves on the board of a nonprofit housing agency. He said current law lets skilled landlords evict a tenant in a timely way by documenting their reasons and said the one-month deposit in current law is adequate.

“I do more evictions than most folks in the state,” Shaughnessy said. “The tenant/landlord law is working. Why change it?”

Rep. Harriet Cady, R-Deerfield, a co-sponsor of HB 1388, said tenants and landlords alike have gotten burned in bad lease relationships. She was forced to sell a rental property after dealing with three problem tenants in a row.

Rep. Greg Sorg, R-Franconia, serves on the House Judiciary Committee looking at both bills. He does eviction cases in the North Country as a part of his law practice.

“People like to think of landlords as members of the evil capitalist class,” Sorg said in an interview. “I agree there is a genuine public interest in giving people predictability in their housing. But more people would become landlords if they had a clear remedy for a bad tenant. As for the two-month deposit, that’s how long it takes to get someone out.”

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