Landlords & tenants: Best responses to the coronavirus

In this very serious coronavirus crisis, we expect renter households to pay what rent they can afford. Those still working can likely pay their full rent. Others working part-time or receiving government benefits may be able to pay partial rent. Still others, if unemployed, may be unable to pay any rent at all.

We need a case-by-case approach. The group that I lead, the Small Property Owners
Association (SPOA), is contacting all its members and many other small landlords, urging them to deal sensitively with their tenants on a case-by-case basis as concerns arise. We suggest changing to month-to-month tenancy-at-will (TAW) agreements so that rents can be adjusted month by month, if necessary. A tenant’s income losses and any government benefits need to be confirmed with documentation, if not immediately, then later. An existing lease agreement needs to be terminated by both parties signing a mutual agreement and replacing it with a standard TAW agreement available online. Here are two sources for TAW agreements. Judge for yourself if they are valid sources.

https://legaltemplates.net/legal-documents-forms/#real-estate https://eforms.com/rental/ma/massachusetts-month-to-month-rental-agreement-form/ https://ipropertymanagement.com/templates/month-to-month-rental-agreement

We wish to caution legislators at every level that a blanket moratorium on all rent payments would be a waste of valuable income from people who are still employed or still receiving government benefits, who can afford to pay some amount of rent, if not full rent. The resources of those who can still pay all or much of their rent need to be made available to help those who can pay little or nothing. We expect landlords to operate on reduced income, but no income at all leads to disaster. This situation is why we urge a case-by-case response to each renter household’s income situation.

We wish to caution legislators at every level that a blanket moratorium on all rent payments would be a waste of valuable income from people who are still employed or still receiving government benefits, who can afford to pay some amount of rent, if not full rent. The resources of those who can still pay all or much of their rent need to be made available to help those who can pay little or nothing. We expect landlords to operate on reduced income, but no income at all leads to disaster. This situation is why we urge a case-by-case response to each renter household’s income situation.

          It is quite possible that an eviction moratorium and/or a rent payment moratorium in Massachusetts could be followed by widespread nonpayment when tenants invoke a claim of “rent withholding” for code violations, which blocks their eviction until all code violations are repaired. But to keep living rent-free, tenants block owners’ repair efforts, undo repairs, and damage their units to keep those code violations alive. When owners no longer have the funds to make repairs, the impact can be abandoned housing, a frequent occurrence during recessions.

It can be even worse. We have a clear example from Lawrence, Mass., which was hit very
hard by the early 1990’s recession and made national headlines as the “City of Flames.” Many tenants stopped paying rent, owners abandoned their properties, and over 200 buildings – both multifamily housing and factories – were torched (look it up on Wikipedia) to get insurance payments. The tenants had used (or abused) a Massachusetts law that today still allows tenants to live rent-free for prolonged periods. The city of Lawrence lost a huge chunk of its lowest-rent housing, every bit as much a loss for lower-income tenants as for owners.

Similarly, a 90-day eviction moratorium is far too long. Any moratorium should be reviewed at least every two weeks for any developing impacts. At the same time, “emergency” evictions need to be better defined to forestall widespread nonpayment and redefined as impacts become clear. In the meantime, enforcement of the State Sanitary Code should be suspended except for emergency conditions.

In spite of all, we urge landlords to accommodate as much as possible those tenants needing relief during this unprecedented crisis.

Executive Director
Small Property Owners Association
Cambridge, MA
skore@comcast.net


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