Protecting Small Businesses

Detail from Netherlandish Proverbs, Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Students in my Community Development Clinic and I have a column in the New York Law Journal, Small Business Jobs Survival Act May Have Opposite Effect. It reads,

The New York City Council is considering a bill, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, that it claims will protect small businesses even though the Act contains no protections tailored to them. Instead, the Act would implement a new lease renewal arbitration system that treats all commercial tenancies the same, allowing businesses as large as Amazon to benefit.

The Act would create a bureaucratic process that works contrary to its stated goals. The Act is meant to “create a fair negotiating environment, which would result in more reasonable and fair lease terms to help small businesses survive and encourage job retention and growth.” The Act actually creates a system under which big businesses will benefit the most. Furthermore, the process is overly complex for mom and pop businesses owners who are not familiar with the legal system. To avoid exacerbating the advantages that big businesses currently enjoy in the rental market, the City should consider policy alternatives that are tailored to the needs of small businesses.

Although the Act is supposed to protect small businesses, it does not define what a small business is. By not distinguishing between big and small tenants, the Act gives businesses of all sizes the same rights to negotiate a lease renewal. For large businesses like Amazon with an in-house legal department, the new system is business as usual. Amazon does not need to worry about additional costs to negotiate a lease renewal. For mom and pop business owners, the system starts to feel like a tax simply to stay in business because they will need to increase their costs relative to big businesses.

The Act’s arbitration provision sets forth about a dozen factors that an arbitrator must consider when setting the rent. Those factors can then be supplemented by “all other relevant factors.” Such a complex and vague standard will lead to inconsistent and unpredictable results. Two arbitrators determining rents for similar businesses located near each other are likely to arrive at different rents for these businesses because of the broad set of criteria they can consider. Additionally, an arbitrator’s decision would be final and non-reviewable.

The City’s property tax system offers a cautionary tale. The system is complex, many of its decisions are unreviewable, and its results are arbitrary and unfair. One consequence has been that property owners in wealthier neighborhoods often pay lower property taxes than those in less affluent neighborhoods, a state of affairs leading to a high-profile lawsuit and a Mayoral push to reconsider the entire system.

In addition to a costly process, the proposed lease renewal system is not easily navigable for mom and pop business owners. These mom and pop shops would face a new world of legal processes not familiar to them and that have nothing to do with their businesses. The Act almost requires that small commercial tenants hire lawyers to guide them through a system that might begin to feel like the soul-crushing New York City Housing Court, where tenants and landlords spend countless hours and often obtain results as perplexing as the problems that brought them there in the first place. Unrepresented tenants, in particular, face steep odds against the confusing and impersonal system. They are often unaware of their rights and how the system works, leading to temporary relief that does not do much more than postpone the date of their eviction. If the Act is enacted, small business tenants who either can’t or don’t hire lawyers would face as many, if not more, obstacles than they do in the current system.

Given that the Act in its current form does not serve its intended goals, the City should consider policy alternatives like formula business restrictions, which may be a more effective way of targeting and protecting small businesses. The formula business restriction serves to prevent retail and fast food chains from operating in particular neighborhoods in order to protect their social fabric. These restrictions aim to protect the unique character of city neighborhoods that have yet to feel the full effects of gentrification and mall-ification. These restrictions will incentivize leasing to new small businesses while protecting existing ones that are at risk of losing their space to commercial chains.

Companies like Amazon should not be the principal beneficiaries of a “Small Business Jobs Survival Act.” Rather, the City should focus on targeted approaches like formula business restrictions that assist new and existing small businesses more directly.

David Reiss is a Professor at Brooklyn Law School, the director of the Community Development Clinic and the research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. Areeb Been Khan, Robert Levy and Juliana Malandro are legal interns in the Brooklyn Law School Community Development Clinic. They were recently invited to testify at a New York City Council hearing regarding the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.

 

Contract Selling Is Back, Big-Time

The Chicago Reader quoted me in The Infamous Practice of Contract Selling Is Back in Chicago. It reads, in part,

When Carolyn Smith saw a for sale sign go up on her block one evening in the fall of 2011, it felt serendipitous. The now 68-year-old was anxiously looking for a new place to live. The landlord of her four-unit apartment building in the city’s Austin neighborhood was in foreclosure and had stopped paying the water bill. That month, she and the other tenants had finally scraped together the money themselves to prevent a shutoff and were planning to withhold rent until the landlord paid them back. Exhausted with this process and tired of dealing with “slumlords,” Smith wanted to buy a home in the neighborhood to ensure that she, her mother, Gwendolyn, and their dog, Sugar Baby, would have a stable place to live. But due to a past bankruptcy, Smith thought she would never be able to get a mortgage. So when she saw a house on her street for sale with a sign that said “owner financing,” she was excited. The next morning, she called the number listed and learned that the down payment was just $900—a sum she could fathom paying. “I figured I was blessed,” she says.

Her good fortune continued. A man on the other end of the line told her she was the very first one to inquire. The seller, South Carolina-based National Asset Advisors, called her several more times and mailed her paperwork to sign. Smith says she never met in person with anyone from National Asset Advisors or Harbour Portfolio Advisors, the Texas-based company that owned the home. But she says the agents she spoke with assured her that her credit was good enough for the transaction, despite the past bankruptcy. Next, they gave her a key code that allowed her to go in and look at the house, explaining that she’d be purchasing it “as is.” Smith thought the two-flat looked like a fixer-upper—the door had been damaged in an apparent break-in, and there was no hot-water heater, furnace, or kitchen sink—but given her poor luck with apartments of late, she felt she couldn’t pass up the chance to own a home. Both she and her mother, now 84, had been renting their whole lives; after pulling together the down payment, they beamed with pride when, in December 2011, they received a letter from National Asset Advisors that read “Congratulations on your purchase of your new home!”

But within a year, Smith discovered that the house was in even worse shape than she’d realized. In her first months in her new home, Smith estimates that she spent more than $4,000 just to get the heat and running water working properly, drinking bottled water in the meantime. Then the chimney started to crumble. Smith would hear the periodic thud of stray bricks tumbling into the alleyway as she sat in her living room or lay in bed at night; she began to worry that a passerby would be hit in the head and soon spent another $2,000 to replace the chimney. Public records show that the house had sat vacant earlier that year, and the city had ordered its previous owners to make extensive repairs.

Had Smith approached a bank for a mortgage, she likely would’ve received a Federal Housing Administration-issued form advising her to get a home inspection before buying. But as far as she recalls, no one she spoke to ever suggested one, and in her rush to get out of her old apartment, she didn’t think to insist.

The documents Smith signed with Harbour and National Asset Advisors required her to bring the property into habitable condition within four months, and with all the unexpected expenses, she soon fell behind on her monthly payments of $545.

Smith’s retirement from her job as an adult educator at Malcolm X College, in the spring of 2013, compounded the financial strain. Living on a fixed income of what she estimates was around $1,100 a month in pension and social security payments, she fell further behind, and the stress mounted.

“When we got to be two months behind, they would call me every day,” she remembers.

National Asset Advisors also began sending her letters threatening to evict her. That’s when Smith had a heart-stopping realization: She hadn’t actually purchased her home at all. The document she had signed wasn’t a traditional mortgage, as she had believed, but a “contract for deed”—a type of seller-financed transaction under which buyers lack any equity in the property until they’ve paid for it in full. Since Smith didn’t actually have a deed to the house, or any of the rights typically afforded home owners, she and her mother could be thrown out without a foreclosure process, forfeiting the thousands of dollars they’d already spent to rehabilitate the home.

“I know people always say ‘buyer beware’ ” she acknowledges. “But I’d never had a mortgage before, and I feel like they took advantage of that.”

What felt like a private nightmare for Smith has been playing out nationwide in the wake of the housing market crash, as investment firms step in to fill a void left by banks, now focused on lending to wealthier borrowers with spotless credit histories. In a tight credit market, companies like Harbour, which has purchased roughly 7,000 homes nationwide since 2010, including at least 42 in Cook County, purport to offer another shot at home ownership for those who can’t get mortgages. Such practices are increasingly common in struggling cities hard hit by the housing crash. A February 2016 article in the New York Times titled “Market for Fixer-Uppers Traps Low-Income Buyers” examined Harbour’s contract-for-deed sales in Akron, Ohio, and Battle Creek, Michigan. The Detroit News has reported that in 2015 the number of homes sold through contract-for-deed agreements in the city exceeded those sold through traditional mortgages.

*     *     *

Contract-for-deed sales also offered an attractive loophole from the growing set of regulations on traditional mortgages following the financial crisis. “In the same way that you saw [subprime lenders like] Countrywide get really big in the late 1990s,” says David Reiss, research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, “one of the real attractions for the businesses operating in this space is that they are underregulated.”

Domestic Violence and Housing Discrimination

HUD

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DomesticShelters.org quoted me in Abuse Survivors Not Welcome. It opens,

There are lots of barriers survivors of domestic violence face when searching for housing. Sandra Park, an ACLU attorney at the Women’s Rights Project who focuses on the rights of domestic violence survivors, shares one example.

Park worked with a woman called Hope who seemed to be on track to rent an apartment. Hope placed a deposit and the property management company gave her an application that asked for the social security numbers of her children. Due to her history as a domestic violence survivor, Hope had changed her own social security number and her identity. She had full custody of her children and their father had no visitation rights.

The property management company said they would run a check on the children’s social security numbers—a move that Hope feared could alert her abuser to her location. She refused to give the numbers and was turned down for the apartment. She turned to the ACLU, which filed a Fair Housing Act complaint on her behalf. Ultimately, the management company compensated Hope and changed its policy.

Discrimination Is Real

Research confirms that survivors of domestic violence are sometimes discriminated against when they look for housing. A study done by the Washington, D.C.-based Equal Rights Center found that advocates searching for housing on behalf of a domestic violence victim were either denied housing or offered less advantageous terms, compared to comparable people with no connection to domestic violence.

For example, the domestic violence advocates might be told that they had to meet a landlord in person, or that their move-in date was too soon, or that they would receive a call back with more information while another caller was given the information right away. In some cases the call back never came.

Another study, by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York and conducted in a similar fashion, found that 27.5% were flatly refused housing or failed to receive follow up.

Potential Problems

There are various reasons landlords might hesitate to rent to a domestic violence survivor:

● The landlord may be uncomfortable dealing with a survivor

● The landlord may believe the abuser will cause issues

● The survivor may have bad credit because the abuser ruined their credit history

● The survivor may have a history of eviction that’s linked to the domestic violence

● The survivor may have a criminal conviction for conduct stemming from self-defense

What Can Survivors Do?

It may help to be honest with your potential future landlord. “If you have negative criminal, credit or tenancy records because of domestic violence and you know the landlord is going to run that kind of check, it can go a long way to be up front and explain why you have that history,” Park says. “In some cases it makes sense to try to provide that information to the landlord, so when the check comes back they don’t throw away your application.”

She says if you believe you’re facing discrimination, you might want to seek legal assistance. Nationally, the Fair Housing Act and the Violence Against Women Act both offer some protection.

The Fair Housing Act doesn’t prohibit discrimination based on domestic violence status. But it does prohibit discrimination based on gender. Since the majority of domestic violence victims are women, in some cases you can make the argument that discriminating against a female domestic violence survivor is discrimination based on gender.

The Violence Against Women Act does offer protection for domestic violence survivors. But it only applies to federally funded and Section 8 housing. If you are applying to a property and you’re covered under the Violence Against Women Act, you may want to notify your landlord about your protection. “Some landlords will not know about the Violence Against Women Act at all, so it can be helpful for them to be educated about that,” Park says.

Some state and local laws also prohibit housing discrimination based on domestic violence status. The National Housing Law Project lists state laws that offer this protection.

David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, recommends keeping careful records as you search for housing, in case you need evidence to prove discrimination.

“Save your texts, emails and voicemails. If you have evidence you want to protect don’t destroy it, save a copy. Once you start making noise that you think you’re being discriminated against people will be more cautious,” he warns.

What Is Constructive Eviction?

broken-window-960188_1280

Realtor.com quoted me in What Is a Constructive Eviction? A Rental Gone Very, Very Wrong. It opens,

Most renters have certainly heard of eviction—the dreaded process in which a landlord kicks out a tenant for not paying rent or some other major infraction. But what is a constructive eviction?

That’s a whole different ballgame, where a landlord essentially “evicts” a tenant by not fixing an uninhabitable rental. And while “constructive” may sound like a positive word, it’s not. It means the landlord is failing to fulfill his legal duty.

Constructive eviction is rare, but tenants who face this dire scenario should know their rights, and how to fight back.

How Constructive Evictions Work

“A common way landlords attempt to force out tenants would be by failing to provide heat in the winter,” says Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss. Other ways a landlord could run into constructive eviction territory include turning off the water supply or failing to clean up flaking lead paint or toxic mold.

Constructive evictions are uncommon, because most landlords will usually help tenants with an issue. Or, if they are reluctant at first, they’ll eventually reach a compromise with a tenant through the court system, says Boston attorney Robert Pellegrini.

As such, tenants should attempt to work through any problems with the landlord first. That said, if a property owner won’t budge and the living environment puts a renter in harm’s way, a tenant can pursue a constructive eviction claim.

How To File A Constructive Eviction Claim

Unfortunately, tenants can’t file a constructive eviction claim if their floors creak or if their walls are painted a hideous shade of avocado green.

“More minor conditions like peeling (nonlead) paint, stuck windows, and drafty doors would be weak bases for a claim,” says Reiss.

Pellegrini agrees, adding, “The standards are very high for this, because you’re basically asking the court to conclude that the landlord essentially evicted you when he hasn’t.”

Here are five things a tenant must demonstrate to an attorney to prove a constructive eviction:

  1. Your landlord owed you (the tenant) a duty, such as providing heat in the winter or a residence free from toxic mold.
  2. The landlord neglected the duty.
  3. The apartment became uninhabitable as a result of the neglect.
  4. You gave the landlord notice of the neglect and time to take care of it.
  5. You left the apartment within a reasonable amount of time after the landlord’s failure to fix the issue.

Creating Safe and Healthy Living Environments

photo by Will Keightley

The Center for American Progress has released Creating Safe and Healthy Living Environments for Low-Income Families. It opens,

A strong home is central to all of our daily lives. People in the United States spend about 70 percent of their time inside a residence. As the Federal Healthy Homes Work Group explained, “A home has a unique place in our everyday lives. Homes are where we start and end our day, where our children live and play, where friends and family gather to celebrate, and where we seek refuge and safety.” Understanding how fundamental homes are to everything we do, it is troubling that more than 30 million housing units in the United States have significant physical or health hazards, such as dilapidated structures, poor heating, damaged plumbing, gas leaks, or lead. Some estimates suggest that the direct and indirect health care costs associated with housing-related illness or injuries are in the billions of dollars. The condition of housing is even more important for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities who need housing structures that support their particular needs.

The condition and quality of a home is often influenced by the neighborhood in which it is located, underscoring how one’s health and life expectancy is determined more by ZIP code than genetic code. According to a recent report by Barbara Sard, vice president for housing policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, living in neighborhoods of “concentrated disadvantage”—which are characterized by high rates of racial segregation, unemployment, single-parent families, and exposure to neighborhood violence—can impair children’s cognitive development and school performance. Residents of poor neighborhoods also tend to experience health problems—including depression, asthma, diabetes, and heart disease—at higher-than-average rates. This is particularly troubling given that African American, American Indian and Alaskan Native, and Latino children are six to nine times more likely than white children to live in high-poverty communities.

The country’s affordable housing crisis is partially to blame for families and individuals tolerating substandard housing conditions and unhealthy neighborhoods. Half of all renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing—the threshold commonly deemed affordable—while 26 percent spend more than half their income on housing. While housing assistance programs such as public housing and the Housing Choice Voucher program, commonly referred to as Section 8, provide critical support to families struggling to meet housing costs, only one in four households eligible for rental assistance actually receives it due to limited federal funding. Furthermore, millions of Americans face evictions each year. As work by Harvard University sociologist Matthew Desmond has highlighted, eviction is not just a condition of poverty but a cause of it, trapping families in poverty, preventing them from accessing and maintaining safe housing or communities, and corresponding with higher rates of depression and suicide.

This report provides an overview of the conditions of the nation’s housing stock, barriers to accessing housing for people with disabilities, the effects that neighborhood safety has on families, and recommendations for improving these conditions. Given how central homes and communities are to people’s lives, federal and local leaders must work to ensure low-income families have access to living environments that are conducive to their success. (1-2, footnotes omitted)

There were rapid improvements in housing healthy and safety over the 20th century. Since the time of Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives, we went from outhouses being common to the public subsidy of modern apartment buildings in cities and the suburbanization of the rest country.

As a result, many people do not realize the extent to which many households continue to live in substandard housing. Lead paint exposure is perhaps the most known of the  risks, but it is not the only one.

This CAP report also highlights the risks that neighborhoods can present to their residents. Being safe in your home does not mean that you are safe on your street, on your walk to school or on your daily commute.

The report provides provides a useful overview of the challenges that low-income households face, inside and out of their homes.

Evicted by Homeowners Association

photo by respres

Realtor.com quoted me in Homeowner Evicted for Not Paying HOA Dues: Can This Happen to You? It opens,

Who knew? Even if you pay your mortgage on time every month, your home can still be foreclosed on and sold from under your feet. That, at least, is what Triss McQuiston from Tomball, TX, learned recently when she was notified that she’d have to vacate her place. Why? It turns out she was evicted for not paying her HOA dues.

According to ABC13, McQuiston admits that she was guilty of procrastinating on paying her HOA fees to the Canyon Gate at Northpointe Owners Association in 2014 and 2015. Because she was opening a new business, her HOA bills slipped through the cracks, for a grand total of $1,800 in unpaid dues.

An attorney for the HOA claims that since March 2014, they’d sent McQuiston 12 notices by first-class certified mail to collect these assessments, warning her what would happen if she didn’t. When they received no response, they proceeded with the foreclosure, and sold the home at auction back in September.

Yet McQuiston argues that she’d received no warnings, and was made aware of her dire straits only when she received an eviction notice on her doorstep on May 20. She has since hired an attorney to help fight the case and remain in her home.

“I would never have thought in my wildest dreams that an HOA … would go to these lengths and they’d have this much power,” McQuiston told ABC13.

If this story has you viewing HOAs in a harsh (and terrifying) new light, we don’t blame you. And while the laws vary by state, it turns out that in most cases, HOAs really do have the power to foreclose on your home for unpaid dues, as do condo owners associations.

“Contrary to common perceptions, even if a person is current on a mortgage, the HOA or COA may foreclose,” says Bob Tankel, a Florida attorney specializing in HOA law. “What’s the moral of the story? Pay your assessments. These are not huge amounts. People apparently think that just because assessments are small there’s nothing bad that can happen. But that’s not true.”

To know specifically how your HOA or COA handles late payments, homeowners should “check the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs),” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. You should check not only what constitutes a late payment, but also how you’ll be penalized; additional fees could include late charges, fines, interest, as well as attorneys’ fees.

It’s also smart to check what rights and recourse you have in your state if you end up unable to pay these assessments. “Some states have enacted some procedural protections for homeowners,” says Reiss. “It’s worth figuring those out if you are not able to pay off your HOA right away.”

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