I will tell you right now that there is nothing like being a landlord to provide insight into why landlords act the way they do. When I bought a duplex nearly twenty years ago, I never thought it would be such good job training. I should have a heckuva lot of CEUs by now! I’ve rented to first-time renters for the last ten years and it’s always meaningful, frequently entertaining, and occasionally infuriating. But it has certainly taught me a lot. And here’s my chance to unload!
Sounds easy? It’s not. It takes a lot of knowledge and skill to accomplish this. Honestly, it takes a lot of maturity and a lot of practice. How many of you have been renters at some time in your lives? Be honest now, were you REALLY a good tenant? I wasn’t. In fact, the only one of these I mastered was paying the rent on time. I was never more than 2 days late. But the rest of it? I didn’t have many parties but the ones I did have often became pretty wild—with dancing and singing and drinking until the wee hours. I painted walls without permission, I used two-sided sticky tape on wallpaper, I rescued a dog who refused to be housebroken. I wasn’t the tenant from hell by any means, but I would rather not be my landlord. Though, come to think about it, I would definitely be a step up from my current tenants. At any rate, these are your objectives. Memorize them, cross-stitch them on a wall-hanging for your clients or your office. You WILL be tested!
In my humble opinion, it’s a lot easier to pay the rent when you aren’t living at 15% of AMI like most of the people experiencing homelessness. But pay the rent you must if you want to keep your housing. As a landlord, I know how much we rely on our tenants’ rent to pay for the mortgage, the utilities, and the endless repairs. Rental property is not really the most lucrative way to make a living. Sure, you get to depreciate that new light fixture you put in after the tenants decided to play Tarzan with the chandelier. But you write it off using complicated depreciation schedules and only get back your taxable rate at that. So you may very well pay $100 and get back $3.50 per year for 7 years. The more a landlord likes and trusts a tenant, the more likely he/she will be to allow an occasional late or partial rent payment. Landlords don’t want to lose a good tenant. A really bad tenant? Well, landlords may actually hope for missed rent so they can cut their losses and evict. But honestly, losing even a bad tenant costs time and money. You have to clean the place up, advertise, interview tenants, buy or conduct a background check (if you do that sort of thing), interview….only then will you start getting your rent again. And who says the new tenant will be any better? So landlords are usually willing to negotiate but they are not willing to be chumps. If a tenant comes in with a request to pay in ten days, the landlord will likely agree—the first time. But woe unto the tenant if that money doesn’t appear in 10 days. I’ve had many late or partial rent payments. One tenant paid in cash, in $10 bills, and was always $10 short. It would take him more than a week to pay that last $10. I’m no idiot—this was a power struggle, not a case where the tenant really, really was exactly $10 short every month. So I no longer accept cash. Future tenants, many of whom are unbanked, will have to get a money order or a checking account (which is a hassle but probably good budgeting experience). That’s how it happens. Something goes wrong and you say to yourself “I don’t want this to happen again.” So you create a rule. It doesn’t happen again, but something else does. Bam, new rule. Rules are always additive—no one ever gets rid of old rules. So the tenant who comes into a situation where there seem to be bazillions of rules may take it personally, but it’s the cumulative experience of many many tenants that have led to this.
I rent to first time renters, usually 19-20 year olds. They have not the slightest interest in listening to my quite humorous but deadly serious discussion on “how to take care of your apartment.” I always tell them: “some day, you will run out of toilet paper and you will think, well, paper towels are the same thing. And your toilet will clog and you will be so worried that you won’t tell me for three days and I will have to wonder what you have been doing for those three days….” And yet, there has never been a tenant that has not ended up putting paper towels in the toilet…or grease down the kitchen drain. I tell them not to use steel wool to clean anything in their apartment—ever. I even give them the proper products, labeled in magic marker: for wood floors. Yet they may just use that product to wash their laundry (yes, it happened—Murphy’s Oil Soap in the brand new washer, and no, I did not create a rule that says “no Murphy’s Oil Soap in the laundry” because even if I did, the next tenant might use dishwasher soap ). Water damage is horrendous to fix--Windows left open, plants without drip saucers sitting in a puddle of water on hardwood floors: things like this cost a fortune to fix. Fire safety: Candles left burning in closets (yes, I’m not kidding), dryer lint (one of the most flammable substances on the planet), coating the dryer. And my favorite, the tenants who thought it would be cheaper to turn off the heat at night and keep the apartment warm via the gas broiler. I live upstairs and you’d better believe that I keep an escape ladder near my bedroom window. It’s that bad. And by the way, here’s a fire hazard you probably haven’t thought of. Any appliance with a heating unit (toasters, coffee makers, hair dryers, space heaters) can burst into flames if left plugged in. It happens all the time. There is only one little cheap circuit breaker that kicks in when you turn off the appliance—and if it fails, even though the unit is turned off—you’re talking conflagration. And there goes your damage deposit. Also BTW, refugees and immigrants who have never used plumbing or stoves really do need specific instructions or—if language is a barrier and there is no interpreter, a demonstration. And you might also suggest they not sacrifice chickens in the bathtub. Yes, that too.
You know you have a problem when you return from a trip out of town and the neighbors meet you at the curb, before you even get out of the car, and tell you that the tenants had a wild weekend-long party and apparently decided that the line to the only bathroom was too long and thus did use the neighbors’ bushes. In St. Paul, if you can hear noise from the property line after 10 p.m. (7 days per week), the perpetrators will be issued a ticket. I happen to have a neighbor who keeps a stopwatch, so he can call the cops at 10:01. If St. Paul’s finest come to the house too often, I am out of business. So even though I can barely hear them, if the party is loud at Tim’s fence line, it has to stop. I don’t care about the noise, but Tim does. And he drinks. And he has guns. Tenants have to learn to respect even idiot neighbors, and unreasonable landlords who have to keep the peace by enforcing noise limits. I know I am being humorous here, but I also know you realize this is a serious business. People’s housing depends on their ability to meet landlord expectations..
I talked to one community that had just contracted for an agency to recruit and manage landlord relationships. Guess who they chose? A tenant rights organization! Now, I am sure that this tenant rights organization understands – or will soon understand! – the need to provide support and even appreciation to partner landlords. But I wonder how they will approach the very landlords they filed a complaints against in the past? I think it will be hard for the agency to establish credibility as a neutral party, assisting both the tenants and the landlord.
Initially, staff had to do everything but bribe landlords to accept their clients. Well, OK, I confess, they did offer bribes. But these were often called “double damage deposits.” One agency cleverly offered to pay for Pest Control to fumigate the entire apartment building if the landlord accepted the agency’s tenants with serious mental illness. Why is it so hard to find landlords? You see, there is actually a huge financial risk in letting strangers live in your property. Landlords presume that past behavior determines future behavior and screen out people with less-than-perfect rental histories—or people with no previous rental experience. People experiencing homelessness are often screened out by landlords because of these kinds of barriers: extremely low incomes, history of late rent payments and poor credit histories. Some have criminal records, some have damaged property in the past. These things show up in a tenant screening report and landlords use these reports to minimize their risk of unpaid rent, or damage to buildings and community relationships. The Rapid Exit agencies had to convince the landlords that staff would assure a worry-free tenancy. That doesn’t mean there would never be any tenant problems, but that those problems would be promptly resolved by agency staff. In essence, the staff would become the personal FREE caretaker for agency clients. The landlords were initially skeptical about trusting social service staff; after all, many landlords’ experience with social services was limited to complaints from tenant advocates who knew the letter of the most obscure law when it came to tenant rights but had no interest in landlord rights or tenant responsibilities.
By the way, if the vacancy rate rises even a little bit, recruit landlords. If you see a for rent sign outside a building for 2 or more months, try to recruit the landlord. It’s amazing how much a small change in the housing market affects landlords. At one point over the last 19 years, my area rental market was very hot. I was showing the apartment to a young couple. It had been raining for days. At the door to the tenant’s apartment, I conspicuously took off my shoes, glancing less-than surreptitiously at the muddy boot worn by the prospective tenants. The man never glanced down, the woman looked at me defiantly and tromped into the apartment, boots on. At that exact moment, they lost the apartment. I didn’t even do a rental reference check. I could afford to screen them out. And in case you haven’t thought about this, rude people are not a protected class. A few years later, the vacancy rate skyrocketed. That year, when the snow melted, I found more than a thousand cigarette butts all over the yard. At one point I could screen out muddy boots; then I had to accept serious littering. Enough said. Do not offer more than the basic package unless you are new at recruiting, the market is very, very tight, or you have a tenant with a horrendous housing record.
You want to put this into simple English (or, in our area, Hmong or Somali). Lists are good: things that will get you evicted; things where you have to ask in advance. We created a simple tool which simply lists the rules that could get me kicked out (like not paying the rent, damaging the property, unauthorized tenant, not keeping utilities paid) and the things where I have to have landlord’s permission (like getting a roommate, painting a room, attaching pictures to the walls). A list of Good Neighbor” tips is also useful and can help tenant avoid lease violations: can’t smell garbage or hear TV from hall, kids don’t run in the hallways, no loud parties that last beyond 11:00, etc. These can prevent complaints that escalate into lease violations. And remember, if the tenant has a month-to-month lease, the landlord can give one month’s notice to move out without cause. That means if your client is noisy, obnoxious and rude and the other tenants are constantly complaining, it’s easier for the landlord to give notice to vacate than to keep dealing with the other tenants. Your client needs to know that even if rudeness is not specifically listed as a lease violation, it can affect their housing just as much as a legally defined violation.
Red flags—it’s an old but true story, checking for men’s shoes! But seriously, unauthorized tenant is almost always a lease violation. Moving the boyfriend in after the lease is signed is usually a sign that the boyfriend’s tenant screening report wouldn’t pass muster. How long has he been staying; how long will he be there? Maybe a plan is needed to approach the landlord about adding him to the lease—or asking him to leave. Other red flags—an apartment which has always been neat and clean but now is chaotic and dirty. What’s happening? Is the depression returning? Is it alcohol or drugs? A landlord could not ever, ever get involved in this, but you can. Breaking a cycle before it gets to the point of lease violations, late rent, etc. is good on so many levels. I think it’s a good idea, if possible, to provide cleaning products for specialty cleaning – for carpet stains, for magic marker or crayon landscapes on the walls (if there are kids), etc. Have the tenant set the TV volume as high as they like and take them out in the hallway to see how loud that will be for the other tenants. Figure out a volume level that works for everyone.
Role play asking for an extension. Write (together) a sample letter asking for the extension. What will your client say when the sister asks to borrow the rent money because she really needs it for X, Y or Z? If the problems are more severe—like the bad boyfriend demands money every month or the drinking gets out of control, suggest vendoring the rent from the TANF check or getting a representative payee for SSI.
Try to help your client learn never to make a complaint or respond to a complaint while they are angry. It won’t come put diplomatically, will it? Again, practice a line or two, write a sample letter. There is nothing that impresses landlords more than a tenant who takes responsibility for mistakes, assures the landlord it won’t happen again—and then keeps that assurance.
The Rapid Exit staff have helped many many tenants secure repairs and have helped enforce tenant rights. They have occasionally had to discontinue working with a landlord whose behavior is inappropriate or whose promises are never kept. Weed them out if you can. Decide where the fine line will be drawn between a slow landlord in a worn-out building vs. an unscrupulous landlord who has no intention of doing more than he is forced to do.
Basically, if your clients pay the rent, treat the building with respect and treat other people with respect, it really doesn’t matter what they’ve done in the past. If you can assure a landlord they will follow those three rules, they can live in his/her building. If not, oh well, they’ll have to find somewhere else.
2.13 Marge Wherley
Perfecting Rapid Re-Housing: How to Leverage Landlord Relationships NAEH conference, 2011 Marge Wherley Abt Associates, Inc.
Disclosure: <ul><li>I’ve worked with housing and homelessness for more than 30 years…. </li></ul><ul><li>AND </li></ul><ul><li>I’ve been a landlord for 19 years!!! </li></ul>
WHAT DO LANDLORDS WANT? <ul><li>From a non-profit housing developer: </li></ul><ul><li>“ It’s really very simple: </li></ul><ul><li>Pay the rent on time </li></ul><ul><li>Treat the building with respect </li></ul><ul><li>Treat other people with respect </li></ul><ul><li>If you can do that, you can live in my building. If not, oh, well, you’ll have to go somewhere else.” </li></ul>
Pay the Rent on Time <ul><li>Landlords have bills to pay, too. Usually, cash flow for the entire operation requires that most tenants pay their rent on the 1 st . </li></ul><ul><li>Exceptions can be made, but the tenant has to request an extension in advance, provide a plan for payment, and follow through. </li></ul><ul><li>Cash flow is particularly important for smaller landlords—who are most likely to be flexible about housing your clients. </li></ul>
Treat the Building With Respect <ul><li>In my experience, most tenant damage results from carelessness and ignorance </li></ul><ul><li>Lack of simple, minimal housekeeping can cause significant and expensive damage </li></ul><ul><li>Use of wrong cleaning products or tools can also damage tile, flooring, counters, sinks, etc. </li></ul><ul><li>Abuse of plumbing! </li></ul><ul><li>Fire-safety </li></ul><ul><li>And, of course, there can be deliberate damage…….. </li></ul>
Treat Other People With Respect <ul><li>This means other tenants, nearby neighbors and, of course, the landlord. </li></ul><ul><li>Noise is a significant threat to relationships with other tenants. </li></ul><ul><li>Landlords in many areas cannot turn a blind eye to drugs: they can lose their license or even their property. </li></ul><ul><li>“ Lease violations” are often based on local laws—under-age drinking, occupancy standards, etc.; don’t blame the landlord for enforcing them. </li></ul>
So, What Does a Housing Program Do to Recruit and Retain Landlords? <ul><li>#1: Realize that landlords are not the enemy. </li></ul><ul><li>Your job is to create a win-win for tenants and landlords within the framework of laws and leases. </li></ul><ul><li>Put together a package of supports and incentives that achieve the landlord’s three primary objectives: Rent, Respect for Building, Respect for People. </li></ul><ul><li>Do what you promise! </li></ul>
Hennepin Nonprofits Developed a Network of LLs <ul><li>Hennepin’s Rapid Exit program has provided rapid re-housing for families, youth and adults for 18 years—and now has several hundred loyal landlords, some of whom have been partners for over 15 years. </li></ul><ul><li>Initially, the agencies competed with each other to secure landlords; now they have a coordinated approach and landlords compete to attract Rapid Exit clients. </li></ul><ul><li>WHY? Rapid Exit offers better guarantees of a worry-free tenancy than a Tenant Screening Report. </li></ul>
What Rapid Exit Offers to Landlords <ul><li>Basic Package for all clients : Home visits; rapid response to landlord calls; corrective measures for lease violations; assure rent paid; help tenant move if no resolution is possible. </li></ul><ul><li>Add-Ons for more difficult-to-house tenants or very tight housing markets : Pay or repair damage; pay eviction court costs; co-sign lease for some mutually-agreeable period of time (afterwards, lease changed to tenant’s name); or sign the lease and sub-lease (if allowed) to your client. </li></ul>
How to Help Your Tenants Meet Landlord Expectations <ul><li>THE LEASE: </li></ul><ul><li>Read and explain—in simple terminology-- the lease (or have a tenant/legal service provider “translate”) </li></ul><ul><li>Assure they have a basic understanding of tenant and landlord rights and responsibilities. </li></ul>
How to Help Your Tenants Meet Landlord Expectations (cont.) <ul><li>HOME VISITS: </li></ul><ul><li>Use drop-in visits to look for “red flags” (if a landlord suddenly evicts your client, you have not been paying attention) </li></ul><ul><li>Home visits are also a good time for “in vivo” teaching about noise levels, garbage removal, basic housekeeping </li></ul>
How to Help Your Tenants Meet Landlord Expectations (cont.) <ul><li>ANTICIPATE PROBLEMS: </li></ul><ul><li>Plan ahead, with your client, about how to respond if the rent will be late or partial pay </li></ul><ul><li>Consider other issues that have affected housing in the past and develop (with your client) a plan to prevent or resolve them </li></ul>
How to Help Your Tenants Meet Landlord Expectations (cont.) <ul><li>COMMUNICATIONS/ROLE PLAY: </li></ul><ul><li>How to respond if the landlord (or another tenant) makes a complaint about you </li></ul><ul><li>How to make a complaint to the landlord (repairs, other tenants, etc.) </li></ul>
You can (and should) still hold landlords accountable <ul><li>Never work with slumlords!!!!!!!!! </li></ul><ul><li>Accept conditions that are a bit worn-out but NOT problems that threaten health or safety </li></ul><ul><li>Report problems directly to the landlord and negotiate resolution face-to-face or in writing. </li></ul><ul><li>Know your community’s tenant rights and landlord responsibilities (but use judgment in the application) </li></ul><ul><li>Don’t let your desperation make you compromise TOO much </li></ul>
Moral of the story: James “Whitey” Bulger, Boston gang boss, was not really all bad…… <ul><li>He had 30 guns and $800,000 hidden in his apartment and is accused of 19 murders. Whitey was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List until he was caught just a few weeks ago. </li></ul><ul><li>According to the apartment manager, Whitey had lived in the same apartment for 15 years, paid his rent on time and made few complaints. </li></ul><ul><li>“ He was a good tenant.” </li></ul>