Bill giving tenants more time to catch up faces stiff test in Senate Judiciary

By: - February 11, 2022 4:30 am

A worker removes a table during an eviction in Ohio. (Photo by Stephen Zenner / Getty Images)

Proposed changes to the state’s landlord-tenant statutes have so far been met with skepticism across the political spectrum over at least six hours of debate during the legislative session.

House Bill 65 will make its way next to the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee after being considered in the Health and Public Affairs on Wednesday night. Senators there sent the legislation to Judiciary without giving it either their stamp of approval or rejection, pushing it along “without recommendation” after members raised some concerns. 

Last year, another bill that contained the same changes to housing laws died in the Judiciary, where it did not get a hearing. Sponsors have said they were more optimistic this year, touting its support from tenant lawyers, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Apartment Association of New Mexico, which represents landlords across the state. 

The measure would update the landlord-tenant laws for the first time since the 1970s, sponsors said. Some changes include giving tenants more time to make their rent payments after they’ve been served with a notice that they’re late, ensuring they’re informed of protections and resources when an eviction begins, and prohibiting landlords from refusing to renew some leases during a declared public health emergency.

At the moment, a tenant has only three days to come up with rent after being notified that they are late to avoid grounds for eviction in court. That’s one of the shortest such periods in the country, sponsors said. The bill would expand that time to 11 days.

The bill represents the biggest proposed change to housing policy this legislative session, one that occurs amid rapidly increasing home prices and rents and the recent lifting of a two-year ban on evictions for non-payment. Among other benefits, the changes give tenants more time and flexibility to get rent assistance money from the state, sponsors said. 

In a tiny NM courtroom, evictions begin again

Rep. T. Ryan Lane (R-Aztec), questioned sponsor Rep. Andrea Romero (D-Santa Fe) for about an hour during the bill’s hearing on the House floor this weekend. He criticized provisions that he said made landlords wait longer than necessary to bring an eviction case or get their day in court, or that  gave them too many new hoops to jump through. 

Taken together, Lane said, the provisions might make some landlords so fed up that they’ll sell their properties, reducing the state’s supply of rental stock and driving up rents. He also predicted landlords will scrutinize tenants more heavily to avoid a drawn-out court battle, harming would-be renters with bad credit history or past evictions. 

“I think it’s going to make it a lot harder on the people we’re trying to protect,” he said. “I understand the intent, but I think it does the opposite.”

After about three hours of debate, the bill passed the House of Representatives on a party-line vote, 38-27. 

On Wednesday evening, in the Health and Public Affairs hearing, Sen. Jacob Candelaria (DTS-Albuquerque) took issue with the provision of the bill that would prohibit landlords from refusing to renew a lease during a declared emergency like the one the state is in now. 

He said he generally supported the bill and its provisions but worried the requirement was an unconstitutional invasion by the government into contracts between landlords and tenants. 

As the bill is written, the only exception to the requirement allows landlords in public emergencies to refuse to renew leases only if they or a family member plan to move into the property. 

“Would I, under this section of law if enacted, be able to not renew a lease because I simply wanted to convert my tenancy into an orchid greenhouse and no longer lease it for people?” said Candelaria, who cultivates orchids in his spare time. “Would I be allowed to do that and take my property off the market?”

Maria Griego, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, was an expert testifying on behalf of the bill. She agreed that the bill would prevent Candelaria from evicting tenants in the scenario he described.

But advocates pointed out that the provision in question only applies if there’s a moratorium on evictions, a public health emergency is in effect, and the landlord’s motivation in evicting a tenant during a pandemic is because the tenant is behind on rent. 

Health and Public Affairs Chair Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) also questioned whether landlords were losing some of their constitutional rights in another section of the bill, one that spells out scenarios in which a tenant can claim in court that an eviction is due to retaliation. Landlords also are unable to refuse to renew a lease if their conduct is deemed to be retaliatory, according to the bill. 

“That’s forcing people to enter into a contract,” Ortiz y Pino said.

Candelaria and Ortiz y Pino predicted the bill will face a tough challenge in the Judiciary Committee regarding the prohibitions on terminating leases. 

“If you can convince Judiciary that it passes muster and it comes to the floor, heck, I think I can probably vote for it as is,” Candelaria said.

Co-sponsor Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) said she has no clue what the bill’s prospects are. 

“Unclear what to expect in SJC,” she said in a text message. “It can either go very well or very bad. No way of telling.”

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.