This is a guest post by Atty. Jennifer Hayden of Petrie + Pettit S.C.
What the H*ll Are We Supposed to Do Now?
We honestly have no idea. We are in uncharted waters. But we do know that under the shelter of each other, we all survive.
These are our current suggestions based on the ever-changing information we are being provided with. Please let us know your thoughts, comments and suggestions below.
Daily Operations – Keep it Sane and Clean
With prospective tenants, handle everything possible by e-mail or mail. If you have to meet them in person, follow the CDC recommendations and gloves, hand sanitizer and social distancing. You can ask prospective tenants if they have cold or flu symptoms (as long as you ask every prospective tenant the same question) and decline to show them a unit if they confirm. If a current tenant informs you that they are not willing to allow prospective tenants into their unit while they are residing in it based on health concerns, we suggest you abide by that request. Similarly, if a current tenant is self-isolating or quarantining, his or her unit should not be shown to prospective tenants.
If you haven’t done so already, immediately implement cleaning and sanitizing recommendations set forth by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) for all public areas. You may wish to consider closing or restricting access to any non-essential public areas such as community rooms or fitness centers. Although this could theoretically give rise to a claim for rent abatement or that you breached a tenant’s lease, given the circumstances and the forced closure of other businesses, it is a defensible position.
Communicate regularly with current tenants to keep them informed and confident that you are following the recommendations of the CDC and any applicable orders from government entities or agencies.
Consider instituting a consistent deferment or repayment plan for tenants who contact you and inform you they may not be able to make rental payments due to a COVID-19 related layoff or job loss.
Mediate Milwaukee has informed us that they will be continuing to perform mediations for free and by phone.
You can continue to issue notices for the non-payment of rent. As you saw in Tristan’s prior blog posts, most counties have restricted eviction actions in some capacity but are still accepting filings. Whether it is ultimately faster to file now and potentially have the case adjourned or to wait until the courts are holding hearings again and then file depends on the exact timing of any adjournments and how the court handles new filings once the court has resumed its normal practice. We have been getting notice that previously scheduled hearings in Milwaukee County are now being adjourned into June.
You should continue to issue notices for non-rent breaches, particularly those related to behavioral issues or conflicts between tenants. As more and more people are going to be home all day, we do expect to see some increases in these issues. Though you ultimately will not be able to proceed with an eviction action for some time, having issued notices will put you in the best position to proceed once you are able to do so.
What if a Tenant has COVID-19?
This one is tricky. This is our current advice. Its probably subject to change as this situation continues to evolve.
1. In general, a tenant is not required to inform his or her landlord if the tenant has tested positive for COVID-19 or has been exposed to it. As a result, landlords should not ask tenants if they have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to it, or the landlord may be violating privacy laws.
2. However, if a tenant requests that maintenance or staff come into their unit, you can confirm whether there is a anyone in the unit with cold or flu-like symptoms so that your staff can take necessary precautions.
3. If you have a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 at your property, you should notify your local public health department immediately for guidance and next steps on communicating with tenants.
4. If you have learned that a tenant is self-isolating/quarantining, you must respect the quarantine and take reasonable steps to respond. It is reasonable to send a notification to your staff that they should not enter the tenant’s unit without a manager’s approval.
5. If you believe that a tenant has tested positive or been exposed to the virus, you should put your pandemic plan into action.
We will continue to update these posts as this situation develops. Please feel free to let us know your thoughts and tips for navigating these new challenges.