Bornstein Law is in the business of answering tough questions, but after taking a survey gauging the impact of coronavirus on the real estate industry, we were especially intrigued by one query, which essentially asked if there were any “unidentified opportunities” for property managers in the COVID crisis or lessons to be learned. This prodding gave us some pause, but before we impart advice, some background is in order.
First and foremost, rental property owners have shined through.
We have seen dramatic images of tenants protesting in the streets, and this makes for a sensational story. The rhetoric and images of tenants’ advocates you may see in the media serve to drown out a more optimistic narrative we have witnessed firsthand.
We can attest through our law firm and property management arm that tenants are paying rents and if they are short on the full amount, the vast majority of tenants are communicating with owners. In turn, studious landlords are, by and large, working out mutually agreeable payment plans.
It is the nature of the media – and perhaps the human brain – to fasten onto what is wrong and not pay attention to what is right. A visual fire of a residential building is much more interesting than a building sitting there nicely with residents in harmony and walking their dogs outside. The inferno will make the news, while the humdrum will not. Rent strikes are the proverbial burning building.
What goes unreported are the countless acts of owners who are exercising compassion in giving leeway to cash-strapped tenants. These landlords are not studying the patchwork of local ordinances that specify what documentation is required for a hardship. What documentation of hardship is required, and when it should be produced is largely irrelevant – they are not bogged down in legalese; they simply have a “heart to heart” conversation with tenants.
Internally, we haven’t polled our clients but for that, we turn to our friends at the Small Property Owners of San Francisco. In their May newsletter, the results are in for the pointed question of the month – how has the pandemic affected property owners? We are encouraged that these tales are being told, and what they reveal is not a wave of protest or conflict, but cooperation and empathy.
Let’s get to the root of the question: Are there “unidentified opportunities” amid the pandemic, and what can we learn?
In a word, it is retention. Clearly, rental property owners and operators do not want a revolving door of tenants, but responsible ones who reside for the long haul. Retaining good tenants is good for business in every season, but even more imperative now.
For the time being, the courts have essentially been grounded to a halt, and so barring egregious acts of rogue tenants who pose imminent threats to health and safety, it is not realistic for landlords to believe tenants can be transitioned out of the rental unit anytime soon.
It is the prerogative of the owner to commence an unlawful detainer action, but it will fall on deaf ears because of court closures. Keep in mind, owners will lose their unlawful detainer action if rent is accepted after the action is commenced. Accepting rent in the midstream of an eviction action is a cardinal sin that made our top five reasons owners falter.
Better to work out a payment plan and condense the understanding in a rent forbearance agreement, a document we will gladly assist in preparing.
It’s been said that a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush, but aside from receiving much-needed cash flow, now is a good opportunity to build rapport with tenants and ensure longevity with those who are temporarily distressed. We would be naive to say that all tenants will be appreciative of their landlords’ latitude in making payments, but a great many will.
And so, with long-term tenants even more valuable today, it’s vital to hold on to the residents you have. Communication has always been important in every season, but doubly so now. Whether by phone, email or text, communicating with them in the way they prefer to be communicated with is yet another signal you are trying to be a fair landlord or property manager.