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How landlords can help tenants during COVID-19 (letter templates included)

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All businesses are impacted by the COVID-19 virus, and rental-housing provided by landlords big and small is no exception. 

Even as several Canadian provinces declare a state of emergency and the federal government imposes new and extreme measures to contain the virus, rental suite owners are facing unknown futures with tenants who may be unable to work, along with the impact of home-quarantine as well as state-imposed quarantines. 

Given the unprecedented health crisis we are all facing, landlords need to consider their role in the current initiatives to ‘flatten the curve’ (reduce the spread and rate of COVID-19 infection), as well as the best practises for communicating and helping tenants in the near term and going forward. 

Whether you run an short-term rental business, you rent out a suite in your home, you’re a small-business landlord or a larger corporate management company, here’s a list of best practices along with some key points for each type of landlord in the current rental marketplace.

According to multiple industry sources, the best way to handle the current COVID-19 pandemic is through preparation, communication and proactive cleaning. To do this, consider implementing the following: 

  • Prepare: 
    • Create schedules and plans to limit exposure between tenants and between tenant(s) and homeowner/landlord/service staff. This can include closing or limiting access to shared amenity spaces, such as courtyards or laundry facilities, restricting the use of elevators. 
    • Defer all non-essential maintenance on the property, until the virus is contained and health authorities lift the requirement for nation-wide social distancing.
  • Communicate: 
    • Remind everyone to keep a safe distance from one another and to limit their touch points (don’t touch walls or doors unnecessarily). 
    • If you have a management office, consider providing alternative ways to communicate with office or leasing staff with the aim of minimizing face to face interaction. 
    • Promote digital interaction. For potential new tenants, show units through video tours. For all other communication, set up calendars to book online video chats (you can use free scheduling apps and online video chats), and provide instructions for setting up e-transfers (rather than handing off envelopes with cheques or cash). 
  • Proactive: 
    • If you have a management office, consider providing alternative ways to communicate with office or leasing staff with the aim of minimizing face to face interaction. 
    • Increase the cleaning schedule for all shared amenities and spaces. 
    • Distribute gloves and cleaning supplies to all tenants and staff and ask them to “clean as they go.”
    • Install or provide hand sanitizers near doors, stairwells and elevators.
    • Post signage promoting hand washing. 

Airbnb suite owners

Airbnb-make-money-Zolo.ca

Any landlord with an Airbnb suite that had reservations that were confirmed on or before March 14, 2020, can seek compensation from Airbnb under the firm’s ‘extenuating circumstances’ policy. 

This means any guest, who was scheduled to stay in your Airbnb suite between March 14, 2020 and April 14, 2020, and who cancels, can obtain a full refund.

As a host, you may also cancel on your booked guests, during the same time-frame, without charge or impact on your Superhost status and Airbnb will refund all service fees for these cancellations. 

Keep in mind, however, if a guest checked in prior to March 14, 2020, you and your guest are not eligible for the refund. 

While some Airbnb hosts are offering ‘self-isolation packages’ — where Netflix and food delivery is just a click away — hosts in Canada are strongly encouraged not to promote travel or tourism at this point in time. 

Homeowners with rental suites

Since the rental suite is in your home, you should already be incentivized to clean. Turns out, you are also required, as part of your landlord responsibilities, to “maintain a safe rental unit and residential property.” This includes appropriate cleanliness and, in the midst of the COVID-19 public health crisis, this should include extra vigilance of cleaning routines in public areas. 

Consider more frequent cleaning of public and shared spaces as well as high-traffic areas. For instance, schedule handle and handrail wipedowns to be sprayed and wiped down with disinfectant at least two times per day (more, if there are more tenants or family members using communal spaces).  

Landlords (those who do not solely rely on rental income)

adding up hidden costs

Landlords who do not live in the same premise as tenants need to implement rigorous cleaning regimes. This means more frequent cleaning of high traffic areas, such as lobbies, elevators and laundry rooms. 

Consider implementing schedules for the use of common areas, such as laundry rooms. 

Business or corporate landlords

If you operate a rental business, consider implementing more structural short-term changes. For instance, require building managers and all other employees to wear gloves and carry disinfectant cleaner. Also, consider placing alcohol-based hand sanitizer in common areas to promote cleanliness. Add signs and visual reminders of how and when to clean hard surfaces and wash hands. 

You may also consider asking tenants to start an online sign-up schedule to book and use laundry or dog-washing facilities. Consider closing shared facilities, such as gyms and recreation rooms. 

Financial help for landlords

banks will self impose stricter guidelines for HELOCs

For landlords faced with a cash crunch, consider using the financial incentives and help offered by the Canadian government and Canada’s big six banks (along with some mortgage mono-lenders). For instance: 

  • Talk to your bank or lender to see if you qualify for a mortgage payment deferral. This deferral could extend for as long as six months and enable landlords (and tenants) to recover from financial set back prompted by the coronavirus. 
  • Apply for wage subsidies, such as EI sickness benefits, EI for temporary lay-offs and wage support for self-employed Canadians (both of which will be available starting April 2020). 
  • Take advantage of the extended tax payment deadlines that allow you to postpone paying taxes owed until after August 31, 2020. No penalties or interest will accrue on these deferred amounts. 
  • If you employ people as part of your rental business, explore the $10 billion credit facility program the federal government offers. The money is earmarked to help lend money to businesses under stress as a result of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • If you pay utilities, contact your local provider. Many utility companies will allow you to defer payments or set up payment plans to reduce the burden of utility bills. If you’re really struggling, consider applying for a utility grant. While not all provider offer this option, it allows you to get access to free money (a grant) that helps pay outstanding utility fees.

Help your tenants

Regardless of how your rental business is structured, it’s time to help. 

If you are eligible for either the mortgage payment deferral program through your bank or mortgage lender or you qualify for aid through the recently announced federal government small business financial plan, then pass this help down to your tenants. Where possible, offer your tenants a rent deferral for a month or more. If a full rent deferral is not possible, consider a partial reduction. 

While full relief from all payments is challenging, due to ongoing expenses, such as water, gas, hydro and building maintenance (all costs that could increase in the coming weeks and months), it’s critical to communicate with your tenants and for everyone to work together in order to get  through this coronavirus crisis. 

To start the conversation with your tenant use this template letter: Landlords – Initial Letter to Tenants – COVID-19

If you have a more defined solution, consider using this template letter: Landlords offering to help tenants during the COVID-19 crisis

What to do if a tenant has or may have COVID-19?

No matter what type of tenant you may have or what type of landlord category you fall into, remember to be proactive. If there is a presumed or confirmed case of COVID-19 within your rental suite, immediately contact local public health authorities. Do not provide personal information to any tenant, instead, give all information to public health authorities; it is their responsibility to reach out to any other tenant that may have come into contact with the individual. 

Where to get up-to-date information

World Health Organization

Health Canada

Ontario (provincial health & wellness)

BC Centre for Disease Control

Vancouver Coastal Health

Alberta Public Health

Saskatchewan Public Health

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Romana King

Romana King is an award-winning personal finance writer, real estate expert and the current Director of Content at Zolo Homebase. Romana has contributed to business and lifestyle publications including CBC.ca, Toronto Sun, Maclean’s, MoneySense, Globe & Mail Custom Content Team, and The Toronto Star. Among her achievements, Romana won silver for her annual Where to Buy Now real estate package in the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. In 2015, she won a SABEW Business Journalism award. When she was editor of CI Top Broker, Romana helped guide her team to obtain its first KRW Business Journalism nomination, and in 2011, she was part of a small team that helped MoneySense win Magazine of the Year at the 34th annual National Magazine Awards. Her north star is to consistently provide actionable, valuable and accurate information that helps elevate the financial literacy of everyone.