Nearly every state—along with many counties and cities—has passed some sort of law aimed at mitigating the financial struggles renters are facing due to the coronavirus outbreak. However, many of these emergency laws have created confusion: The laws are different from one area to another, and the exceptions, qualifications, and criteria in each can be difficult to navigate. While it’s impossible to capture the exact situation in every location, here are answers to some questions renters everywhere are asking.
You are still responsible for paying rent during the coronavirus, unless you and your landlord come to an agreement that allows you to not pay (be sure to get any agreements in writing).
The federal government (through its CARES Act), and some states and cities have eviction moratoriums in place. That means that if you cannot pay rent during the crisis, your landlord cannot evict you for nonpayment (although landlords in most areas with bans can still evict tenants for other reasons, such as dealing drugs or other criminal behavior). Not all areas have these bans, though, and every ban is different, so be sure to find out what rules apply to your rental. Even if you are not subject to eviction, you continue to owe rent. When the moratorium is lifted, your landlord will be able to evict you and seek payment of everything you owe.
When you miss a rent payment or pay rent late, you might also owe your landlord a late fee, depending on your lease or rental agreement. Some states have prohibited landlords from assessing late fees during the crisis, but others have not. Failure to pay a late fee is grounds for eviction in some areas.
If you cannot pay rent due to the coronavirus crisis, you should consider getting in touch with your landlord to discuss your situation. Even if you live in an area with an eviction ban, you still owe rent, and, if you fail to pay rent during the crisis, your landlord might be able to evict you once the ban is lifted. So, it’s best to get ahead of the situation and see if you can come to a temporary arrangement with your landlord that will allow you to avoid eviction.
You might have other options, as well. Many government agencies (federal, state, and local), non-profits, and private organizations are offering financial assistance for those struggling due to the outbreak of COVID-19. If you think they can help, consider asking friends and family for short-term loans or help paying rent.
It depends. Many states and cities have banned evictions during the coronavirus crisis. The federal government has also banned evictions from certain properties (visit Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s websites to see if your rental is covered by the federal ban).
However, some states do not have an eviction moratorium in place; some never enacted a ban, while others have again started to allow evictions to proceed. Check to see whether your area has an eviction moratorium in place, and be sure to understand its terms. All moratoriums differ slightly--some are comprehensive bans on evictions, while others only prevent evictions under certain circumstances.
Keep in mind that even in areas with wide-reaching eviction moratoriums, landlords might still be able to evict tenants for some reasons, such as dealing drugs, threatening other people, or engaging in other illegal activity.
Your lease or rental agreement dictates whether you or your landlord is responsible for paying for the utilities that service your rental. In most states, when a landlord is responsible for paying for a utility, such as electricity or cable, the landlord is not allowed to turn off the utility as retaliation for not paying rent.
Under normal circumstances, landlords can assess late fees (if allowed by law and specified in your lease or rental agreement), and/or terminate the tenancy when a tenant fails to pay rent. However, because of the coronavirus outbreak, many states have emergency rent and eviction rules in place, and, depending on the applicable law, might prohibit landlords from assessing late fees, serving eviction notices, or following through with standing eviction notices (check to see if there is a ban on evictions where you live). While some landlords might look for alternative ways to get back money they are owed (such as turning off utilities), creative self-help measures are still not allowed--just ask the Fort Worth landlord who cut off his renter’s utilities when she was short on rent in April.
Note that if you are responsible for paying the utility bill, though, it’s possible that your utility company might shut off your service for nonpayment during the crisis. Many states have banned utility shut offs during the state of emergency, and many providers have voluntarily agreed to not shut off service during the crisis. However, there is no blanket prohibition on utility shut offs nationwide, so you’ll need to check with the individual service provider to see how it’s handling nonpayment during the outbreak.
For most renters who haven’t paid rent (or are thinking about not paying rent) during the COVID-19 outbreak, this is the million-dollar question. Most states that have eviction moratoriums in place have not addressed this issue, leaving it up to landlords and tenants to work out. Some states are beginning to consider the problem, though. For example, New York has provided that if the tenant wishes, the landlord can use the tenant’s security deposit towards unpaid rent. If the tenant and landlord agree to do this, the tenant is then responsible for repaying the security deposit at a rate of 1/12 of the amount used as rent per month. However, this is a small patch for the problem if a tenant remains unable to pay for a long period of time.
If you’re in a situation where you can’t pay rent, or can only pay part of the rent, you should talk to your landlord as soon as possible. Most landlords do not want to evict tenants who have paid rent consistently and in full in the past, recognizing that good tenants are hard to find—and even harder to find during a pandemic. Let your landlord know your current situation, as well as your prospects for being able to pay rent in the future. For example, discuss the timing of when you’ll receive a stimulus check or unemployment, or your efforts to find a new source of income.
When you talk to your landlord, be prepared. Get creative and brainstorm different ways that you can pay part of your rent, along with a repayment plan. Offer to pay as much as you can--your landlord likely has a mortgage and other expenses to pay, and is probably experiencing financial hardships as well. If you can offer even something, the chances are better that you will work something out. Be sure to get any agreements in writing signed by all tenants and the landlord.
It depends. If you and your landlord signed a lease, your landlord cannot raise your rent until the lease ends, unless you agreed otherwise in the lease. If you rent month-to-month, your landlord might be able to raise your rent by giving you notice as required under state law. If you live in an area subject to rent control, your landlord must also follow those rules in order to raise your rent.
Some states and cities are freezing rents during the coronavirus crisis. For example, the city of San Jose, California, passed a temporary ordinance that prohibits landlords from increasing rent until December 31, 2020. However, there’s a catch—the freeze only applies to rentals that are already subject to the city’s rent stabilization program. (California also has a statewide rent control program.) Landlords who rent property that isn’t subject to rent stabilization--such as single-family homes—are free to raise rent as allowed under their leases or rental agreements.
So, if there’s no rent freeze where you live (which is the case in most areas), your landlord can raise your rent in any manner legally allowed under normal circumstances. That being said, it’s probably not in any landlord’s best interest to put increased financial pressure on tenants right now by increasing rent.
No. Landlords can terminate tenancies—and evict if necessary—only when the tenants fail to pay rent or substantially violate a term of the lease. So, unless you have a provision in your lease that says you’ll remain healthy, your landlord can’t force you out for having COVID-19.
In addition, any adverse actions a landlord takes against someone with COVID-19 might also be considered a violation of federal and state fair housing laws. Although the law surrounding infection with COVID-19 is undetermined, a savvy lawyer might make an argument that evicting someone for having the virus is illegal discrimination against someone with a disability.
Illegally evicting someone has consequences. If you believe your landlord is wrongfully trying to evict you, contact a local landlord-tenant attorney or a local legal aid office.
Whether or not your landlord can charge you late fees during the pandemic depends mostly on three things:
1. Does your lease or rental agreement state that the landlord can charge late fees?
Your landlord cannot assess late fees unless explicitly stated in your lease or rental agreement. If you have a month-to-month rental agreement, your landlord can change it to include a late fee provision, but cannot make the changes without giving you the amount of and type of notice required under state law. If you have a lease, your landlord can only change its terms if you agree in writing or once the current lease expires.
2. Is there an emergency order that prevents landlords from assessing late fees?
Even if your lease or rental agreement allows your landlord to charge late fees, some emergency orders prevent landlords from charging late fees during the coronavirus crisis. Under most of these orders, you are not relieved of your requirement to pay rent, but your landlord cannot tack late fees onto the amount of money you owe. Check to see if there is an emergency ban in your state.
3. Does the law where you live allow late fees?
If late fees are provided for in your lease or rental agreement, and if there’s no emergency order banning them in your area, it’s probably legal for your landlord to assess late fees. Note, however, that many states limit how much landlords can charge for late fees, so you might want to make sure that whatever late fee provisions are in your lease or rental agreement comply with state law.
If you live in an area with rent control, check your rent control laws or ordinances to see if they regulate late fees.
Finally, consider contacting your landlord to discuss options if you are unable to pay rent due to the coronavirus outbreak. Many landlords are willing to work with good tenants to come to a payment schedule or other plan. If you come to any arrangement with your landlord, be sure to get it in writing.
No. There is no requirement that you tell your landlord if you have COVID-19.
If, through your status as a tenant, you gain access to facilities such as a gym, laundry room, or pool, you are paying for that access as part of your rent. As such, if your landlord has closed any of those facilities due to coronavirus concerns, you are most likely entitled to a partial reduction of your rent—even if your lease says your landlord can shut down these facilities at any time.
This is Contract Law 101—you shouldn’t have to pay for services that you aren’t receiving, and it holds true even if the landlord had to close the facility out of necessity. Some leases state that tenants aren’t entitled to a reduction in rent if the landlord has to close facilities, but it’s unlikely that any court would uphold a clause such as this.
If your landlord hasn’t voluntarily reduced your rent due to the facility closure, consider asking for one. Propose a reasonable reduction (or refund) in your rent in an amount proportional to the market value of the loss of use of the facility. Calculating an appropriate amount is the hard part, though. Consider researching how much comparable apartments in your area without the facility rent for. For example, if you pay $1800/month for a complex with a gym, but people in a nearby complex without a gym pay $1700/month, you can make the argument that you should receive a $100/month reduction in rent. Alternatively, you could research the amount you’d have to pay elsewhere to have access to the same sort of facility. For example, if the machines in your complex charge $1.00 per load of laundry, but a local laundromat charges $5.00 per load, you could use that as a basis for the reduction—don’t forget to account for the added value of the convenience of having the facility located right in your complex.
You don’t have to negotiate alone—consider enlisting other tenants to ask for similar rent reductions. In the event that your landlord refuses to consider a reduction, your main option is to pursue a claim in small claims court. Many small claims courts are closed right now due to the coronavirus outbreak, so keep good records of the dates of the closure, your research about the market value of the use of the facility, and your communications with your landlord. When courts reopen, you will be able to bring a suit against your landlord for the amount you believe you are owed.
With stay-at-home orders in most places, we are all seeing (and probably hearing) more of our neighbors than we are used to. Nerves are on edge, and everyone is trying to adjust their work, play, and sleep schedules to the new normal. It’s not surprising that neighbor conflicts are becoming more common.
In these times, your personal and your family’s safety are your primary concern. Be sure to take into account social distancing rules and stay-at-home orders—as well as your gut feelings—before deciding how to deal with neighbor problems. We’ve compiled a set of guidelines for renters and landlords needing to resolve issues with neighbors.
The brief answer: No, a landlord’s requiring masks in common areas is most likely not infringing on anyone’s constitutional rights. Whether such a policy is enforceable, though, is an unsettled question, and would depend on a number of factors, such as state and local laws, along with the specific facts of the situation.
The longer answer: Many states, cities, and counties have adopted rules requiring people to wear masks when in public and when keeping a six-foot distance from others is impossible. Following suit, many landlords are informing tenants that they must wear masks while in common areas of multiunit rentals.
When a state of emergency is declared, state and local governments have broad authority (but not unbound authority) to issue health-and-safety-related orders. Requiring people to wear masks in public (subject to guidelines and certain exceptions) is likely well within states’ and local governments’ power, and not a constitutional violation.
In some areas, businesses are required to post signs stating that visitors are required to wear masks. If the business fails to comply, it could be subject to fines. Whether the business chooses to enforce the policy is another matter. Businesses are also free to decide to refuse service to people who don’t wear masks. Whether these laws apply to landlords and multiunit rentals depends on the laws where the rental is located.
In most situations, no matter how egregious the landlord’s behavior is, it won’t infringe on constitutional rights (the exception being those in public housing or housing with ties to the government). This is because the constitution protects individual liberty from actions by the government—not private actors. (Some states have expanded the reach of their constitutions to apply to certain private actors. This raises complicated questions beyond the scope of this article.)
That being said, a landlord who suddenly requires everyone to wear masks in common areas has implemented a new policy that wasn’t in place when the current tenants signed their lease or rental agreement. In other words, the landlord is changing the rules mid-tenancy, which is generally not allowed. In order to change a rental’s rules or policies, landlords typically must either wait until the expiration of a lease, or, if there’s a rental agreement, give the notice required under state law.
However, it is possible that a court would side with a landlord taking emergency measures to protect employees, tenants, and visitors. But how a landlord could legally enforce the mask-wearing policy raises even more questions—would a tenant’s refusal to wear a mask justify evicting the tenant? Charging the tenant a fine? Banning the tenant from common areas?
This is a complicated, unsettled legal issue. Until we know more, tenants who are unhappy with a requirement to wear masks should consider complying with the rule or avoiding common areas. In the meantime, discuss (in a civil manner) your concerns with your landlord.