All landlords have legal relationships with their tenants. On paper, the nature of the tenant-landlord relationship is purely transactional – the tenant pays a monthly fee, the landlord makes sure the dwelling is habitable. However, in many cases, landlord-tenant relationships also have a human element.
Tenants may stay in the same unit for years, raising their families and going through life changes under the landlord’s roof. Over time, landlords can get to know their tenants very well, especially if the two parties reside in the same building.
These circumstances make landlords an important part of a tenant’s support network. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how much the tenant-landlord relationship is impacted when the tenant is under distress. While much of the interactions between a landlord and tenant are regulated by law, individual landlords can provide additional forms of assistance and support to tenants in need.
Legal Obligations for Tenant Mental Health
Mental illness is considered a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act. This means that landlords cannot discriminate against tenants who present with mental health issues at the beginning of the lease agreement, or who develop a condition during their tenancy.
While landlords cannot ask tenants directly about their condition, they can ask the tenant if any accommodations would improve their ability to adhere to the lease agreements.
Landlords should waive any requirements that would put the tenant under unnecessary distress. For example, a tenant with agoraphobia may be allowed to perform in-person tasks virtually or through the mail. Pet policies should be adapted for individuals who require emotional support or service animals.
A landlord’s legal obligations to accommodate tenants with mental health issues can only be suspended for a few reasons. Generally, all tenants must not pose a danger to the property or other tenants and guests. If the tenant is a danger to themselves, landlords can contact local social services to connect the individual to appropriate support.
Further, landlords do not have to implement accommodations that would be extremely costly or cumbersome. However, the landlord should give the tenant other options, such as waiving notification requirements if the tenant must move to more suitable housing.
Other Types of Support
During the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of renters lost their jobs. Millions of small landlords, who didn’t have the resources to suspend rent payments, were put in a tough position.
However, those who interacted with their tenants with compassion and understanding were much more likely to collect delayed rent.
Rather than focusing on recovering late payments, many landlords communicated directly with their tenants to assess their situation and explain their options. During these conversations, landlords determined their tenant’s ability to pay and the best terms for a payment plan.
In many cities and districts, local governments opened rent assistance programs. Many landlords accompanied their tenants through the process. Not only did this ensure that landlords were paid, but it also fostered a relationship of trust between the two parties. Tenants could meet their obligations, while landlords could keep good tenants in place. An ideal win-win situation.
Practical Advice for Landlords
Being a considerate landlord is not just the right thing to do, but it is also beneficial for the bottom line.
Vacancies are expensive, and cultivating a positive relationship with tenants makes them much more likely to extend or renew their lease. Likewise, tenants can leave reviews on websites that can reach hundreds, if not thousands, of potential renters.
Landlords looking to support their tenants during difficult times can take the following steps:
Consider diverse approaches
Landlords should create a toolkit of solutions to support tenants dealing with the fallout of mental health issues. Some common strategies include:
- Applying a portion of the deposit towards rent
- Eliminating late fees
- Defer rent
- Reduce or eliminate lease term requirements
While landlords routinely check on their property, it is just as important to be mindful of the tenants. A buildup of clutter in the front yard could indicate hoarding or other domestic issues. Landlords are not expected to intervene personally, but passing the information to the right authorities can be a life-saving decision.
Tenants may be under too much stress to keep track of financial assistance programs or rule changes. Landlords should research options for their eligible tenants. This information can then be passed on to tenants through flyers or posters placed in communal spaces.