[In December], I received a Christmas present from a nonpaying tenant. He abandoned the rental after paying nothing for six months. Within hours, I re-rented it.  I called an existing tenant living in a studio. He wanted the bigger place. Another tenant referred her daughter to me to occupy his studio. Both units will be filled by tenants who I know will pay because I know them. We have an existing relationship. These new leases reminded me that in these challenging times, landlords will need to use ingenuity to pull through. Our tenants could be our allies in this struggle as an eviction moratorium looms above.

There are many secondary impacts to the suspension of legal consequences for non-payment that must be tackled in addition to collecting back payments and delayed rents. For example, how a landlord can be ensured payment the month after a tenant moves in. How can we rent out property if the new tenant could provide one month’s rent and a deposit and then simply stop paying for a year?

As a landlord with 20 years of experience, I offer a few stop gap suggestions based on recent experience and past headaches. We all must admit that for many years, landlords have been in the driver’s seat in California. The persistent demand for housing has meant we can replace tenants in a snap and really don’t need to coddle them unless we want to. If tenants have not liked our service, they could easily be replaced. COVID-19 has altered our game. Educational psychologist, Jon F. Wergin, calls constructive disorientation a feeling of disconnect between the current and desired state. It’s this moment when we can learn deeply, he argues. It’s possible that our pandemic is our time to become increasingly customer service-oriented.
Back to the matter of how to fill a vacancy if one cannot evict the tenant if rent is not received on month two: AOA provided some great tips in its December issue, among them googling the applicants’ names, checking property tax records and carefully looking for scams. 

Additionally, California allows a security deposit to be two months’ rent even though most of us only usually ask for one. Besides these ideas, an additional safeguard may be renting to people you know. You may think: but I don’t know anyone who wants to rent! Well, now is that moment of deep learning! It’s time to engage more with our current tenants, provide greater levels of service to them and then tell them when you have vacancies. The relationship between the applicant and current tenant can serve as a supplemental security that the applicant will pay if accepted as a tenant. 

Reach Out to Tenants

If you don’t have a great relationship with your tenants now, it’s never too late. Among ways that you can reach out:

  • Send out a newsletter with information about COVID testing locations, area drive-in movies, job listings and any rules you want to reinforce, such as depositing only recyclable items in the recycle bin. Include your phone number.
  • Ask tenants one by one how they are doing and what challenges they face in the pandemic. 
  • Offer thank you notes with gift cards for rent payments (yes, I have done this) or prizes such as coupons for heart shaped pizza for on-time February rent payments. (I’m looking for the pizzeria to help me now)
        

These measures may seem like overkill. You may think: I’m going to get paid anyway! Why bother? Well, these days, we actually can’t be sure about the payments. Further, I believe these measures set spirit that echoes back at us. As landlords, we run an organization, even if we do not run a large company or have many employees or contractors. We have the opportunity to set a tone of interdependence or lay down an authoritarian hand. When we work as a team, then we can return to our tenants to refer applicants to us. They may also have more empathy so that in hard times, they will make us their first debtors. 

Even though we often think of tenants as our adversaries, in these hard times, they just may be more allies than government officials.    

Jennifer Delson, a former writer for the Los Angeles Times, is a landlord for over 20 years writing a doctoral dissertation on a new model for landlord-tenant relations.