Lawmakers advance bill allowing landlords to evict at end of lease

New Hampshire Statehouse

New Hampshire Statehouse Holly Ramer/AP file photo


New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 04-04-2024 10:40 AM

In July 2004, a national real estate company attempted to end a lease with one of its Nashua tenants. They did not explain the decision, but they gave her six weeks to leave.

The tenant, Kasha Dziewisz, refused. She had paid rent on time and had not violated her lease, she argued; there was no reason for her to go. And in 2005, the state Supreme Court agreed, overturning an attempt by Aimco Properties, LLC to forcibly remove Dziewisz. 

The Supreme Court decision was a landmark moment in landlord-tenant law: the first time the court confirmed that a New Hampshire landlord cannot kick out a tenant at the end of a lease unless there is a specific reason that constitutes “good cause.”

This year, however, lawmakers are revisiting that doctrine. A bill that passed the House last month would allow landlords to cease renting to a tenant at the end of the lease, without the need to point to any specific cause. 

Housing rights advocates have attacked the bill, House Bill 1115, calling it the erasure of a key housing right and warning it will allow landlords to remove tenants they simply do not like and exacerbate the state’s homelessness crisis.

Currently, to force a tenant to leave, a landlord must point to any of a list of set reasons, such as nonpayment of rent, violation of the lease, “substantial” damage to the property, behavior affecting the health and safety of others, and other good cause reasons. Those additional reasons can include a landlord ‘s decision to sell the property, take it off the rental market, or carry out renovations. HB 1115 would add the expiration date of the lease to that list of reasons.

Proponents of the legislation say the bill would give landlords the freedom to sign leases for a set duration and terminate them at the end of that period. That power, they argue, would give landlords more control over their properties, and require tenants and landlords to work together to resolve disagreements in order to continue their lease.

The proposed law would require landlords to give at least 30 days’ notice before choosing to terminate the lease at the end of its period, and it could be used only for tenants who had lived in the housing unit for at least six months. 

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For Jon Kelly, a Concord landlord, the bill would restore state law to the era before 2005 when landlords could use the expiration of the lease to end a relationship with a tenant and avoid a messy eviction process.

Since he got into business in 1993, Kelly has never formally evicted anyone. But sometime before 2005, he had a tenant who struggled to pay their rent on time and continually asked for multi-week extensions. Concluding that the tenant could not really afford the rent, Kelly told them they would have to move out at the end of the lease. He gave them four months’ notice. 

Since the Dziewisz decision, Kelly can no longer use that approach. And to him, the good cause requirement that he is allowed to use to force a tenant out is flawed and inefficient.

“The easiest way to evict somebody is for nonpayment of rent, because you can show your records to a judge and it’s clear,” he said. “Too noisy? What’s too noisy? What time of day, how frequently? How many warnings did you give? Now you have to go to a courtroom and have an argument, usually with somebody who has a lawyer.” 

Kelly argues the ability to end a tenancy at the end of a lease would allow landlords to take a chance on a tenant if they have an eviction record, knowing they can easily end the lease. And he says the new power would allow for a more compassionate approach if a tenant does not work out. Renting, like other relationships, should be about communication and trust, Kelly said. 

“Sometimes things don’t work out,” he said. “And that’s true in any kind of relationship. Imagine if you were in a romantic relationship, or a business relationship, and you could never leave. You always had to go to that carwash. Or if you always had to stay with that romantic partner, even if something has changed in him or her.” 

But others say the bill would create a path to easier evictions and tenant discrimination. Currently, the state’s anti-discrimination statute protects a person from being denied housing on the basis of their age, sex, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, national origin, and physical or mental disability. Statute also prevents landlords from evicting people in retaliation for reporting the landlord for health and safety violations and for evicting victims of domestic violence for no good cause. 

Those protections would still exist if HB 1115 passes into law, but advocates say the bill would give landlords a tool to circumvent the requirements at the end of a lease, and that tenants could have a difficult time proving their discrimination cases in court. 

“If you don’t have to give a reason to evict a tenant other than (that) your lease ended, it’s very easy for a landlord to end a lease for that reason, even if a person may be protected because they belong to a protected class,” said Kerstin Cornell, a staff attorney for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which represents tenants in eviction disputes.

A landlord could evict a mother with a noisy child and not need to give a reason, Cornell said. They could do the same to a tenant of any age, race, or sexual orientation who made them or neighbors uncomfortable, and again not need to prove cause. 

Even those who made every effort to be model tenants would have no certainty whether they would be asked to leave and forced to find new housing every year, Cornell said. 

Cornell rejected the idea that the bill would encourage landlords to take a chance on more marginalized tenants. Landlords already have the ability to take that risk, and the numerous existing good cause reasons for eviction should allow for removal if the tenant is truly a problem, she said. 

“If you take a chance on that tenant and you don’t have a reason to evict the tenant at the end of the lease term except for the lease term end, I don’t understand why that tenant should be evicted,” she said. “Because it seems that that tenant has proven themselves.” 

The bill passed the House with a 194-180 vote but little public backing; ahead of a House hearing, 160 people registered online as opposed, while 10 people said they were in support. It moves next to the Senate.

Rep. Bob Lynn, the bill’s sponsor and former state Supreme Court chief justice, said the bill is necessary to restore landlords’ contracting rights and “correct an unfortunate 2005 New Hampshire Supreme Court split decision.” Lynn was not serving on the Supreme Court in 2005, but did join a unanimous decision by the court in 2015, Mark Berkovoch v. Clifford Jakubowski, that upheld the 2005 decision. 

Opponents of the bill argue that the 2005 Dziewisz decision put New Hampshire on the front lines of a national movement toward requiring good cause evictions; this year, the New York State legislature is considering a law that would codify them into statute.  

“At the end of the day, it’s about people, and treating tenants like people, and not treating them like pawns on a chessboard,” said Cornell. 

But to Kelly, who doesn’t like to use the word “eviction,” New Hampshire’s landlords are being misconstrued. “It’s a hard word to use because no landlord wants an eviction,” he said. 

“The eviction is so unpleasant for everybody. Even the people who are perceived as winning.”