No rent holiday

TENANTS who may be taking advantage of stalled eviction proceedings because of scaled-down operations at the island’s courts will soon have their “day of reckoning”, warns chairman of the Rent Assessment Board Rose Bennett-Cooper.

For the past three months she’s been working with tenants and landlords to find amicable solutions to the problems spawned by COVID-19, the global pandemic which she said has “significantly impacted the landscape of landlord and tenant” [relations].

“You have circumstances where the tenant doesn’t have the money and the landlord needs the money and cannot afford to not be paid. Those are the hard situations where the landlord is the one that ends up just having to ‘hug up’ the problem,” she told the Jamaica Observer, yesterday. “Because here is the rub: You can’t get an eviction during this period because the process that you have to undergo to get that eviction is pretty much on hold.”

To evict a tenant a landlord first has to serve him with a notice of eviction, wait for that notice to expire, and then — if the tenant refuses to leave — go to court to get a court order.

But operations have been scaled down in court across the country, a ripple effect of the Government’s measures to curtail the spread of the virus that has so far infected more than 500 Jamaicans and left nine people dead.

Bennett-Cooper pointed out, however, that this hold on evictions will eventually come to an end and bad tenants should not see it as a free pass.

“I don’t want my saying that the system is now somewhat stalled as it relates to evictions to be an encouragement to bad tenants who say, ‘Oh, we got an eviction holiday,’ because that is not so,” she stressed.

She anticipates that once the courts are back to some level of normal operations eviction cases will be fast-tracked. Bennett-Cooper also cautioned tenants that COVID-19 should not be viewed as an opportunity to stop paying rent, thus allowing that debt to simply pile up.

“A day of reckoning is coming, and it doesn’t make sense to put yourself in that position. You don’t want to say, ‘Hip hip hooray, COVID has allowed me the opportunity to not pay rent for a while, and it’s going to take the landlord a very long time to be able to get back the money and evict me because the court process is going to be bogged up when they reopen,’” she cautioned. There are also implications, she explained, for the credit rating of individuals who develop a history of not honouring their debts. “If you end up with this kind of bad credit, the day may come when you want to buy your house or get a mortgage and this kind of history may have an impact on that. So it’s not an encouragement to persons to think of this as a rent-free holiday,” she added.

As the local economy reels from the effects of COVID-19, layoffs and job cuts have left many unable to cope. Incomes have shrunk or dried up completely while expenses such as rent remain the same.

Bennett-Cooper cited anecdotal cases in which both tenant and landlord have lost their jobs and the homeowner needs the rent to cover mortgage payments; or retirees who were relying on rent to survive are now faced with unemployed tenants who are unable to pay.

She has been offering a range of suggestions, encouraging them to find solutions that work for both sides. These include, for tenants who are able, paying the rent in advance to help out their landlord who may be faced with a challenge. She has also suggested to landlords, who have had no issues with tenants in the past to allow late payments or defer payments for up to three months and then resume based on a mutually agreed payment plan. Some have taken that suggestion on board, she said, but as of June the three-month grace period will be up and rent will again be due. But with the economy not yet fully reopened and many poeple still laid off, or surviving on less income, it is unclear how landlords and their tenants will go forward from there.

It appears, though, that finding an amicable solution is better than trying to fight it out in court.

“Some landlords are in a really bad situation because they are not getting the rent and they can’t get an order for eviction,” said Bennett-Cooper. “And you also have those instances where a landlord would have a bad tenant from long before COVID-19, they already started the process for eviction, and they are stuck with that tenant during the entire period of COVID-19 because the courts are not operating at full strength, so they could not get an order from the courts for eviction. Under our rent laws you cannot evict a tenant without a court order, and you can’t get a court order if the courts are not open.”

She was unable to say how many eviction cases are stalled in the country’s courts at this time, but said it was information that, as chair of the rent board, it “would be good to get a handle on”.

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