Unpaid Rent in the Days of COVID

D. MICHAEL CHESSERThis is an article I am hesitant to write because it relies too much on common sense and not much on law. Government restrictions on evictions will end. That moratorium has always had a potential to be horribly misused. Not because some consideration shouldn’t be given to those who’ve lost a job and can’t pay rent, but because every situation is different, and because the effect on Landlords who can’t enforce collection of rent but must continue to make mortgage payments is so terribly one-sided. The result is like watching a football game in which the referees have told one team not to worry about the rules but that they will enforce them strictly against the other. Someone will get hurt.

Tenants may never read this article. But they need to know the consequences of making no rent payment. When the moratoria are all done the entire unpaid rent will all come down at once. Judges may have no choice. By law, they must enter a Judgment for the entire amount of the accumulated debt, and unless they make an exception, they must evict. No one wants to see families, young or old, rolling their suitcases down the streets. The alternative is for renters to speak early and often to their Landlords, and if they can’t make all of a payment, to make all they can make.

Judges are human, and they will listen if they can. But Landlords are also human, and they generally have more discretion. If a judgment for unpaid rent is entered, it will likely affect the Tenant’s ability to borrow, to buy a car, or to do anything else people sometimes need to do, even if the Tenant avoids eviction. The internet makes it very easy for Landlords and their rental agents to know about a Tenant’s eviction, even in other cities. Landlords will not be quick to approve a rental application for someone who’s just been evicted. The unwanted vision of families on the street is not so far-fetched.

Talk with your Landlord. Work out a plan. You need each other.

So now I’ve got some space left, and something else I’ve meant to say… There are some who say that the virus is a myth. And some believe they are too big or too healthy, or too young to be affected in any way. I have another view.

God put us on earth to care about each other, to stop and wait for those not so strong. Not everyone can be employed by the government and therefore reasonably expect to keep getting paid even if they miss work. I accept from personal experience that COVID is real, regardless of who started it, or why. It does not follow rules or affect everyone the same way. If you are immune from losing your job or your salary then thank your lucky stars; try to understand those who aren’t so lucky. Wearing a mask may be unnecessary. But assuming some of us can’t afford to get sick or lose their jobs, and assuming there is some chance a mask might prevent that, I’ll wear that despicable mask, even if it no longer matters for me. If that’s the least I can do for the least of us, then wearing a mask is a small price to pay.

The message of this article, for Renters, Landlords, and the rest of us, is the same. It is one of hope. We can avoid some very ugly times if we all act as if other people matter. They do.