Are there legal issues for a landlord around handling maintenance issues during a pandemic? Attorney Brad Kraus takes on that issue this month.
Bradley S. Kraus
Attorney at Law, Warren Allen, LLP
By now, many of us are growing tired of the burdens that COVID-19 has placed upon us. From job losses to restrictions on travel and other leisure activities, the coronavirus continues to shape our lives. Worse yet, it does not appear to be going anywhere soon.
Many of our elected officials have suspended several tenant obligations by way of moratoriums and proclamations.
They have not extended that same courtesy to landlords.
One landlord obligation (among many) challenged by an extremely transmittable virus is the handling of maintenance issues during a pandemic. While landlords never had to worry about things like “self-quarantining” or “social-distancing” before this year, these things are here to stay.
- So how do you handle a lack of manpower if your staff is self-quarantining?
- What about tenants who cannot seem to maintain proper distance when a maintenance issue is addressed?
Maintenance issues during a pandemic still require a response
First, it is important to remember that it is illegal to ask tenants to waive their rights under the Landlord/Tenant Act. ORS 90.320 requires a landlord to maintain the dwelling unit in a habitable condition at all times … even during a pandemic.
Accordingly, a tenant who makes a maintenance request has the right to have it promptly addressed. This includes those times when you may not have maintenance staff due to illness, vacation, or otherwise. Throughout those times, your obligations as a landlord persist, so it may behoove you to have a back-up list of outside vendors you can call in a pinch.
Some tenant issues are obviously more pressing than others.
With small issues, your tenant may desire to have minor maintenance issues—e.g., something which does not substantially diminish the habitability of the premises—taken care of down the road, perhaps when the virus’s transmission slows and life returns closer to our previous “normal.” Should this be true, be sure to (a) have your tenant indicate such a desire in writing, and (b) continue to follow up with the tenant intermittently to ensure the issue stays on the radar. By properly documenting the tenants’ desire to wait and following up, you can protect yourself from any claims down the road that you violated your obligations.
When an issue must be addressed quickly, health and safety protocols advised by experts should be observed. It is important that your staff maintain proper distancing and sanitization while addressing any maintenance requests. This includes wearing a mask throughout their work, and sanitizing after the work is done. This will ensure the safety of both your tenants and your staff in these unsettling times.
What if tenants won’t wear a mask and social distance?
Some tenants may not feel the same regarding things like distancing.
If your tenant refuses to acknowledge the safety and space your staff needs and deserves, remind them of the importance of things like distancing and wearing a mask around others. Let them know that if they fail to observe the same, your staff will come back another time.
If they fail to heed these warnings, your staff’s safety should take priority, and they may be required to leave for their own safety. Be sure to document these issues and the reason your staff left, both in an office log and in writing with your tenants, and advise them that your staff will return when their safety will be respected. These communications could be critical down the road, should your tenant blame you for their own failure to respect the safety of others.
These are unprecedented times in which we live.
As landlords, issues involving staffing (due to sickness/quarantine), spacing, and safety have now entered the landlord/tenant equation. Both landlords and tenants should respect the gravity of these issues, even though their interaction with the landlord/tenant act continues to evolve.
Brad Kraus is an attorney at Warren Allen LLP. His primary practice area is Landlord/Tenant law, but he also assists clients with various litigation matters, probate matters, real estate disputes, and family law matters. A native of New Ulm, Minnesota, he continues to root for Minnesota sports teams in his free time. He is an avid sports fan, enjoys exercise, spending time friends and his fiancée, Vicky. You can reach Mr. Kraus via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 503-255-8795.