Two local lawyers agree, landlord-tenant laws are a mess

Published: Sep. 16, 2020 at 12:26 PM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Many people in Alabama, and across the country, are still struggling to pay rent and could possibly face eviction.

But evictions have been put on hold for a majority of the last six months, with several different guidelines along the way.

This is why Sarah Taggart, a local lawyer who represents landlords, and Holly Ray, a lawyer who represents tenants, both agree landlord-tenant laws are a mess right now.

For the last six months, they’ve had their guidelines changed constantly. First it was the CARES Act. Then Gov. Ivey put a stop to evictions when that ended. This was followed by a few days of no eviction moratorium, but then the CDC came out with their own halt on evictions.

Despite the differences, these eviction moratoriums do have something in common: there is no rent relief for tenants and landlords.

Both attorneys agree. This just kicks the can down the road.

“There are tenants that have not been able to pay their full rent obligations since March, and now we’re talking about not being able to have access to the courts to do anything about it until January,” Taggart said. “Without any kind of rent relief there’s really no way we’re ever going to find the other side of this.”

Taggart said by continually pushing this off the tenant will owe even more rent money when they can eventually get evicted. Taggart questions why evictions are even being prevented if no help is coming.

“If you’re not going to do a rent relief fund, you’re not going to provide any assistance to anyone, well then why are you preventing evictions that are just going to inevitably happen in two or three months?” she said.

Taggart also wants to make sure people know that landlords are struggling right now, too. According to the National Apartment Association, only 9 cents of every dollar paid in rent gets back to the landlord as profit.

It’s not all about the profit either, even if a small percentage of tenants aren’t paying, this can make it more difficult for landlords to run their business.

“You have a big apartment community, and say 10% of the tenants don’t pay, how are they going to maintain the HVAC and maintain the staff for maintenance for the 90% of tenants that are paying," Taggart said.

She said this is a real problem happening in the industry right now and it’s even leading to landlords having to sell their property or foreclose.

On the other side of things, we’ve all seen stories across the country with people struggling to pay their rent and ending up getting evicted.

Holly Ray is working with people in North Alabama everyday who can’t pay their rent.

Ray said she walks each client through the CDC moratorium to see if their situation fits the standards. But, Ray said there is a severe lack of guidance on the new guidelines.

“We’re not getting a lot of interpretation of it out of the federal courts yet, part of that is because it’s so new, so we’re leaving it to local trial level judges to interpret it piece of piece and case by case,” Ray said.

Taggart said you can find a different interpretation in each courtroom.

“It is certainly something that you’re getting different interpretations, not just state to state, but courtroom to courtroom in the same county, there is no guidance," Taggart said. "I don’t think we’ll know what the appropriate procedure is for following it for years.”

Ray said these new rules change court procedure, as well. She’s even starting to see court orders for tenants to present their bank statements to prove they could not have been paying their rent.

She said she is advising clients that they need to be able to explain to a judge why they haven’t paid their rent and they need to have a good reason and most of the time, they do.

“In some cases it’s, ‘I lost my job’, in some it’s, ‘I got COVID and I racked up a massive medical bill and I still can’t go to work.’ In a lot cases it’s been the simple answer of, ‘My children didn’t go back to school this week, there was no childcare.’ Those are all valid answers under the CDC moratorium.” Ray said.

She does want to make sure that people are closely reading the CDC moratorium declaration.

“Don’t just file it because someone told you to, you’re signing it under penalty of perjury," Ray said. "It caries the possibility of federal criminal prosecution on both sides. You commit perjury on it or if a landlord violates it.”

Taggart said she hopes tenants look at all their options before trying to apply for the new CDC moratorium.

“You might not be able to afford the apartment you could pre-pandemic, but there are probably other apartments that are just as nice that you could afford," she said. "And that’s the problem I’m seeing, is that they aren’t examining other housing options.”

Ray said she advises her clients on case-by-case basis, and moving might not always be the best choice.

“In many cases there tenants have a plan and want to pay it back,” she said. “There are people that are waiting on unemployment, there are people that are going back to work once their kids go back to school, their backs were against the wall with a pandemic that wasn’t their choice.”

For others, they think money is on the way.

“We also have a lot of clients, especially at legal services right now, who have been waiting 20 weeks for their unemployment,” she said. “We know that that money, or we believe that that money is coming, but they’re trapped in that system." Ray said "And for those people, do we want them to move if we know they’re likely to receive a multi-thousand dollar check in the near future.”

Both Taggart and Ray have also seen landlord and tenant relationships take a hit during this pandemic.

“At the end of the day, it’s like a lot of business and landlord-tenant relationships have a lot of intimacy to it if you don’t pay me my feelings are hurt, my bottomline is also hurt,” she said. “You expect me to still provide you with a decent place to live, but I can’t do that if you’re not paying me rent.”

The biggest problem Ray is seeing right now is illegal evictions. She said anything from cutting power, water, A/C to changing the locks and throwing the tenant’s stuff out of the apartment can be an illegal eviction.

“Anything you do that makes the house unlivable for the tenant or removes the tenant without a court order is an illegal forms of eviction and we are getting an unbelievable amount of those, I think we got 6 before I left work today.”

For the landlords doing this, Ray said they’ve looked at the risks and are willing to take their chances.

“The statutory damages if a landlord does that, are the tenant can sure the landlord for three times their monthly rent or their actual damages, the value of whatever property they lost,” Ray said. “For most tenants, three times the monthly rent is higher, so if I owe my landlord eight months of rent and all I can sue him for is three months of rent anyway, he’s saying I’ll take my chances and it’s happening all over the place.”

At the end of the day, Taggart said you can point fingers all you want but it comes back to the money.

“There are good landlords, there are bad landlords, good tenants, bad tenants. Bottom line, we’ve got a situation where we have a lot of debt that is owed and government action that created that debt, so somethings got to give and it’s got to be fixed. There has to be money or we’re going to find ourselves in a very uneven situation,” Taggart said.

Ray agrees, she said part of her job is keeping roofs over people’s heads but she has to think long term too, about whether or not those roofs will still be there in a year.

“The long term answer for this is financial relief, the long term answer for this is money paid to landlords on behalf of their tenants," Ray said. "It’s not a stimulus check, it is specific to this kind of relief.”

That uneven situation could come in January when the CDC moratorium expires and we see what Taggart calls a potential “tsunami” of evictions.

“We have the very real potential to see tens of thousands of evictions, if not more, nationwide right as we come out of the holidays in the coldest part of the year," Ray said.

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