Life and Money With Helaine by Helaine Olen

Landlord Concerns in Pandemic Times

Hi, Helaine: I own a home that’s divided into four apartments. I live in one and rent out the other three units. I like some tenants more than others but never experienced a difficult problem until now. In one unit, my tenant lost her job and says she can’t pay the rent until she gets on unemployment. In another, the tenants said their income fell by half, and asked if they could pay a fraction of their April rent now, and make good over the next several months when the COVID-19 closures end. The third tenant is good. Paid in full on April 1.

I understand this is unexpected, but I also need the money. The mortgage bill is due every month, whether they pay me or not. I save money for emergencies, why don’t my tenants? I want to tell them that if I don’t receive payment by a set date, I’m going to need to ask them to leave. Letting this slide is also unfair to the person who did make sure I received the rent on schedule. How would you handle this situation? -- Landlord Blues

Dear Landlord Blues: You are hardly alone, and the coronavirus pandemic is not just impacting small landlords like yourself. Large commercial landlords are also finding their tenants cannot pay the rent. Many jurisdictions have put a pause on evictions during this crisis, but even if you lived in one that didn’t, I’m not recommending it. Leaving aside the fact that it’s cruel and nasty, what new renter are you finding in the midst of all this? Your tenants didn’t suddenly morph into deadbeats. They are, just like you, victims of a sudden global health emergency and related financial crisis. I would speak with the two tenants who came to you and work something out. The unemployment system is experiencing extreme delays in many areas of the country, so it’s likely they will receive cash within the next few weeks. But it’s also possible you might need to cut their rent for a time. I realize that’s not ideal, but A) some income is better than none and B) as my grandmother would say, be a mensch. (That’s Yiddish for decent human being.)

If you are experiencing trouble paying your mortgage as a result of this crisis, you should reach out to your lender and ask for forbearance. If your loan is backed by the federal government -- and many are -- your lender will need to grant you the breathing space. It’s not ideal but it is better than default. Finally, since you raise the matter of emergency savings, all professional landlords should have money set aside for eventualities like this. I’d use it if you need it. If this isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what is.

(To ask Helaine a question, email her at askhelaine@gmail.com.)

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