Landlords who had to deal with tenants not paying their rent on time during normal times haven’t had it any easier in a pandemic, but many of them say it hasn’t been as bad as they thought it might be when the virus first shut the world down seven months ago.
“At the beginning, there were a lot of nervous people,” Dan Demars, of Morrisville-based Demars Properties, said. “We were nervous. I think the whole world was nervous.”
Demars said he thinks no one has moved out since the pandemic started. Typically, he said there’s a turnover of four or five of the units, but now, all 135 of them are accounted for.
“We have zero apartments available, and no one’s given their notice,” he said. “We’ve been very, very busy.”
More important, Demars said the property management company has not had to evict anyone.
“We haven’t even had to try,” he said. “We try to be compassionate, but we did that before COVID, too.”
He thinks the stimulus checks that people received in the first few months of the pandemic helped keep some people paying rent, and when those checks dried up, the state came in with $30 million in housing assistance for those affected by COVID-19.
The state draws from federal CARES Act funding to provide relief for tenants unable to pay rent, landlords suffering from a loss of rent payments, and lower income homeowners needing assistance in paying the mortgage.
Vermont Legal Aid helps tenants with rent and homeowners with mortgage payments, and the Vermont Landlord Association helps its members access $30,000 grants to help fix up and renovate units to get them ready for rental use.
“Those are situations where the tenants have to apply and we have to apply,” Demars said. “We try to stay out of people’s business.”
Without that help from Congress, things could have been worse, but now, he said it seems more and more people are working.
As far as repair calls, those have slowed to a trickle, after nearly daily calls from tenants needing something or other fixed, Demars said. He’s not sure if people are wary about having others in their home, or if they’ve learned to live with a leaky faucet or even checked out YouTube fixer-upper videos.
“But, also, you don’t want things to fall into disrepair,” he said.
Carolyn Jones of Joneslan Apartments in Hyde Park rents 15 units in six buildings. Her tenants have been good about keeping up on their rent, which Jones said “are fairly low compared to some in other areas.” This is good, because there’s not been any turnover.
“I think people aren’t moving,” she said. “They don’t dare to.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, she was holding her breath to see how things would go, and there’s been a lot more paperwork to deal with — she doesn’t have a secretary or other staff to help with that load.
As soon as the pandemic hit, Jones wrote all of the tenants a letter, letting them know things would be tough. Luckily, many of her tenants have been there for a long time. She has some renters who have been in the same apartment for 15 years or more, and half a dozen who have been in their places for over a decade.
“I know they’re having trouble, too,” she said. “Some of them got laid off.”
Graham Mink, a landlord with properties in Stowe and Morristown, also hasn’t had to go after anyone for missed rent, and has been able to work out agreements with tenants affected by the pandemic.
“I see the same stories and news on a national level, and have been reading it since March and April, but, in my experience, we haven’t seen it,” Mink said. “Knock on wood, but it’s been decent.”
He said there were some “bumps in the road when COVID first hit,” but the stimulus checks and the Paycheck Protection Program that helped keep the overall economy afloat helped landlords, too.
Bad deal for landlords?
Not all landlords are as cautiously optimistic.
Willie Noyes, a Stowe mechanic and member of the town selectboard, is outright angry at the situation. He’s displeased with a few of his apartments’ tenants, one of whom he said hasn’t paid rent since February and one who he said owes him $40,000 in back rent.
He has 11 units, most of them in Stowe, but it’s an apartment he owns in Johnson that’s been giving him the most painful headache. He’s been trying to get rid of the tenants for years, he said, and even had the power disconnected and a health inspector deem it unsafe.
“They are the scum of the earth,” he said, in one of his politer descriptions of the tenants.
Noyes thinks Vermont’s laws — written by “these lefties down in Montpelier who think everyone deserves a third and fourth chance” — give tenants too many rights, and evictions during COVID were illegal, and kicking someone out in the winter is all but impossible. And with the courts slowed to a crawl, the legal process of forcing a bad tenant out is ever more onerous.
“Landlords have no rights,” he said. “Once a tenant moves into your house, they have more rights to it than you do.”
Noyes said in Stowe, the landlord is responsible for the electric bill, even if it’s in the tenant’s name, which leaves him and other landlords on the hook for missed payments. Some apartment dwellers have found creative ways around paying any utilities.
“It used to be a tenant in the winter would run out of fuel and they’d go to Big Lots and get five space heaters and run up electricity,” he said. “Then, I get stuck with a thousand-dollar electric bill.”
Mink said a majority of rent goes back into the property, whether people pay or not, so the small percentage of profit from being a landlord gets smaller if people don’t pay.
Noyes just laughed and said, “People think landlords are rich.”
Despite his mostly-good-news report, Demars said he didn’t want to minimize “the bad tenant sort of thing.”
Demars Properties does most of its rental agreements on a month-to-month basis, and doesn’t always conduct credit checks, so they get burned once in a while, but Noyes points out when you only have 11 units, getting burned hurts more than when you have scores of them.
Demars agreed that tenants have more rights than landlords.
“There are always bad apples,” he said. “But, if you’re in the business long enough, you get a gut feeling about getting good tenants.”