Struggling with rent? Facing eviction? How to navigate a tricky situation

Do you know the best way to work with your landlord? (Pexels stock image)

For many people, the past year with COVID-19 has brought some form of financial hardship. Jobs have been cut, businesses have suffered, and for service industry workers, their hours have been slashed or their responsibilities scaled back.

Without steady work and a reliable paycheck, it can be tough to keep up with the monthly rent or mortgage payments.

So, if you or someone you know is ever in that position, what should you know? What should you consider? What should you do?

Michael Koch, a staff attorney who works in housing at Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, offered some words of advice.

1. For renters, consider what type of landlord you’re working with.

Sometimes, you’re renting through a larger corporation, as in, you’re likely living in a classic apartment building with a host of units. Tenants are often seen as a commodity, and you probably won’t have much, if any, interaction with the building owners.

An attorney might have better luck communicating with those in charge, in this case, while the tenant would likely struggle to communicate his or her concerns.

If property managers are involved, they’re likely well-meaning, but they have a job to fulfill: Do as they’re told, keep the apartments rented -- and by people who are able to pay.

If the tenants are causing problems or they’re not paying rent, this is an issue, Koch said, because owners of apartment complexes do so as a means to make money.

Of course, it’s safe to assume all landlords expect to be paid for their units.

Suppose however, you’re renting through a smaller operation, a mom-and-pop operation that owns a handful of properties. These landlords are typically much more approachable, Koch said -- especially if they live in the same community as their tenants.

“We’ve had much better success in dealing with those landlords,” he stated.

Still, the same logic applies: It’s still a business for them.

There’s a better chance that a landlord with 1,000 apartments has had to hire an attorney and evict a tenant. With a mom and pop, the chances aren’t as high, Koch said. Keep in mind, an attorney will charge about $1,000 to help with an eviction, which might be a high price to pay for the smaller operation.

So perhaps you’re more likely to work out a property issue with the smaller landlord, and they might be more likely to listen to the other side or work to resolve things.

But keep in mind: If you have a case, you or an attorney might be able to negotiate with the landlord. But you’ll need a good defense or something like a hole in the contract -- or the owners might not be inclined to listen.

“Eviction often comes down to a business decision,” Koch said. “It can seem very personal, much like car repossession, (but it’s about the money).”

2. Be open and transparent.

If you have a landlord or property manager who’s accessible, tell that person if you’re struggling to make a rent payment, or you won’t be able to pay it in full.

Many mortgage companies will work with you, as well -- but you don’t want to avoid the situation. Be honest, and get in touch before the payment’s due date. You might be able to work something out.

“Generally speaking, honesty is a good tactic,” Koch said.

There are some resources tied to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Koch said. You might even be able to find organizations that will help you with your rent.

It wouldn’t hurt to look over the terms of your lease, as well. If you’re not sure you can do this alone, that brings us to the final consideration.

3. Seek the opinion of an attorney, if possible.

When it comes to your lease, there might not be a “saving” clause in there, but it’s worth a look. Attorneys are often better at skimming legal documents and knowing the nuances of something like a rental agreement or a lease.

Legal aid societies and lawyers sometimes do pro bono work, meaning they volunteer their time for free. For example, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida (CLSMF), Koch’s employer, doesn’t charge the people it works with. The group’s funding comes from other sources, so it’s not dependent on hourly fees or anything billed to the clients.

That said, the organization and many like it are in high demand. CLSMF receives about 8,000 calls a month, Koch said.

If you need help, you can dial in and often speak with an expert within about 45 minutes to an hour. The person on the other end of the phone might help with defenses, or could refer you to another unit, like the housing unit or family law.

Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida is available at 800-405-1417.