The First Of The Month Looms — And If The Coronavirus Pandemic Has You Worried About Paying Rent On Time, Here’s What You Need To Know.
As if the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t brought about enough chaos in everyone’s lives, the first of the month now looms, leaving many residential and commercial tenants stuck wondering what to do about rent payments.
In other words: The rent is still due.
Or is it?
If you’re worried about what you may be in store for come April 1, it’s important to know your rights. Knowledge is power, after all.
Keeping in mind that emergency orders and county/state declarations are changing everyday, below are some helpful things you might want to keep in mind regarding your rights as a tenant during these trying times.
[Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only, and not intended to constitute legal advice. Please consult counsel regarding specific situations prior to taking action.]
1. Your rent is still due – but there’s a silver lining.
By and large, yes, your rent is still due on the date it’s always due — no matter whether your lease states that due date as the 1st, 3rd or whenever. There is also nothing in any existing order that forgives or otherwise cancels past due rent that you owe. However, in the event you that fail to pay your rent, most efforts at evicting you from the property aren’t going to happen in any sort of timely fashion. Legally, eviction requires a number of legal steps to be taken, one of which is a court proceeding, and eviction proceedings have been temporarily halted per court orders — statewide until April 19 and through May 18 in Dallas county. To be clear: This stay does not prevent your landlord from filing an action for eviction — or from sending you a nasty letter demanding that you vacate the property. If you don’t pay your rent, both will likely happen. What it does mean is that they will not be able to hold the necessary legal proceedings required of them to terminate your right to the property — not until the courts open back up, which should buy you some time to try to get some money together and pay what you owe.
2. Rent does not get “special priority” in the eyes of the law.
At some point, all tenants can likely expect some sort of communication from their landlords — either proactively addressing the rent issue within a rental community or after a failure to pay rent. Some of these communications may be meanly worded, and some may try to scare you into paying your rent. Be wary of landlords who suggest that payment of rent gets some sort of legal special priority — this is just not accurate. In fact, in the eyes of the law, you may have outstanding obligations that are more important than rent (i.e. child support). Paying rent is certainly important for making sure that you stay on top of your obligations, and it will be important for avoiding eviction when the courts open back up for such proceedings, but your landlord isn’t special. Don’t let them convince you otherwise.
3. Don’t let late fees or penalties swallow you.
While eviction proceedings may be temporarily halted, your contractual obligations are not. Nothing in any order at the state or county level (at least not in Dallas) prohibits landlords from fully enforcing the terms of their rental agreements once the courts are open for business. If your lease contains provisions allowing for fees and penalties in the event of delayed payment, know that your landlord will likely attempt to recoup these costs at some point. This is where it can come in handy to try and have an honest conversation with your landlord. Many landlords are making accommodations and waiving fees or penalties in an attempt to help residents — but it’s important to know that they are not required to do so by default. As with most things under the law, it’s always best to get any agreement you reach with your landlord in writing. Don’t let a phone call or conversation in passing serve as the only thing proving you’re relieved from such obligations.
4. It’s possible you may find your key suddenly doesn’t work.
Even with eviction proceedings temporarily halted, landlords still have other means of taking action. In the event that you fail to pay your rent, landlords may attempt to change the locks — or otherwise prevent you from accessing the property — if your lease provides for such action to be taken. Assuming this is allowed under your lease, this should only happen once the landlord has provided you with a three-day notice stating the earliest date of the proposed lock out, the amount of rent owed, the location where that amount can be paid and your right to receive a key to the new lock at any hour, regardless of whether you pay the rent. If you’re a residential tenant and you come home to find your locks have been changed, the landlord should leave notice on your door with the information of a person who can provide you a new key at any hour. The telephone number provided in that notice is legally required to be answered 24 hours a day, and the person who answers must deliver a key to you within two hours after calling the number. These are requirements of the property code — they are not special COVID-19 policies — so your landlord should be well aware of them. Failure of your landlord to abide by these requirements gives you a multitude of rights, including recovery of damages and penalties related to the lockout. If you have been locked out of a residential property and your landlord refuses to provide a new key, you should contact an attorney immediately.
5. If you feel like you’re being bullied, ask for help.
Many landlords — both commercial and residential — are being extremely reasonable and accommodating in trying to work with residents during these trying times. The key to any successful negotiation, especially in moments like these, is communication. Still, this may not be every tenant’s experience, and there will always be a stubborn group of landlords that make the rest look bad. If you feel like your landlord is being unreasonable after you’ve communicated your rights and tried your best to meet your obligations, or if you feel that your landlord has violated any of the rights mentioned throughout this article, it may be time to consult with counsel. A group of lawyers organized by Dallas attorney Mark Melton has volunteered to provide pro bono guidance to people with regards to their rights as tenants. (Full disclosure: I have joined this cause.) If you believe you need counsel, please send us an email with the facts of your situation and any questions you may have to dallasevictions2020 [at] gmail [dot] com.
Jessica Vittorio is the Managing Attorney of The Law Office of Jessica Vittorio, and a native of Frisco, Texas. Her practice is based in Dallas, and focuses on providing business owners with the insight they need to properly grow their business. She is an advocate for the entrepreneurial community throughout Texas, and frequently speaks on the important role of local businesses in the economy. Prior to opening her firm, Jessica served as primary legislative counsel for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.. In addition to her professional work, Jessica works with the boards of several non-profit organizations that address a variety of topics she holds close to her heart, including: providing affordable access to mental health, resources for artists and musicians, providing access to housing for homeless veterans and, most recently, providing access to legal counsel for detained immigrants.