At first blush, when people hear about an eviction moratorium, it sounds like an important societal accommodation. Let’s face it: Landlords are not sympathetic figures.
However, there are two sides to this issue. Many landlords are not large companies and are not wealthy — they are hardworking people who own one or two buildings and have their life savings tied up in their housing operations.
Let’s look at the larger picture. If tenants don’t pay their rent, landlords cannot pay their bills — even some of the larger enterprises. It’s a very simple cause-and-effect scenario: If tenants don’t pay their rent, landlords cannot pay their mortgages, they can’t pay their taxes, they can’t pay their utilities.
The largest expense for a typical tenant is their rent. However, as important as it is to have a roof over your head, it’s just as important to feed your family. If you go to the supermarket, fill your cart with food, get to the checkout counter and say, “There’s a pandemic and I can’t pay,” the cashier will reply, “We are very sorry to hear that, but you cannot have the food.”
You will encounter the same response if you go to your pharmacy for medications that are important to you and your family members for health, and possibly survival, or if you go to the gas station to buy gas so you can go to work. You are not going to get these goods and services unless you pay for them. Why should housing be any different?
“When the pandemic is over, you can collect the money,” they say. “You will be able to collect the money and spread their payments out over time.”
The reality is that a tenant who can’t pay a month’s rent will in no way be able to pay a year’s rent. What many will do once the pandemic is over is move out. They will have lived in the apartment for a year or more — you paid their water, sewer, electric and other expenses — and they have paid nothing.
The courts cannot be expected to provide relief for property owners once the pandemic subsides. The backlog for eviction actions is staggering.
I’m an attorney who represents a lot of property owners. I also operate many apartment complexes throughout New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania. People like myself are not suffering. Most (but not all) of our tenants still have jobs and are able to meet their monthly obligations. The people who are really hurting own properties where many of the tenants may have been laid off in the hard-hit hospitality sector, restaurants, hotels, etc., and they simply cannot pay.
I believe this is a societal problem that should be dealt with more proactively by the government. There have not been enough relief packages specifically earmarked for rent payment. When people have received COVID-19 relief checks, there is no requirement that it has to be spent on rent. There are some programs that my management team has been educating tenants about, and many have been availing themselves of the resources. But many more people don’t know about these and how to obtain assistance. There are some programs, but there need to be more.
The pandemic shouldn’t just be a problem for landlords, many of whom are not wealthy. Those who own the supermarkets, the pharmacies and the gas stations may well be wealthy — or not. In either case, we are not asking them to give people free food, free drugs or free gas. We are not asking them to wait a year to collect their money. We are only asking landlords to shoulder the burden and that’s not fair.
Alan R. Hammer is a member in the real estate practice at Brach Eichler LLC, a law firm in Roseland.