By Irma Vargas, RST & Associates
It’s Christmas morning and my phone rings, I pick up the phone and it’s a tenant telling me: “I went to use my stove and it does not work. Can you have it fixed today?”
This is just one of the many calls that landlords receive almost daily, and due to COVID-19, since March 2020, the number of these calls have only increased. Here are just a few samples (Note: any expletives were removed so not to offend anyone reading this article):
- “Can you come and clean-up the human feces on the front sidewalk? Don’t you know it is unsanitary?”
- “My kitchen sink is clogged. Can you send someone over now?”
- “The kids upstairs are making a lot of noise; can you tell the tenants upstairs to control their kids? “
- “The guy downstairs is smoking weed and it is coming through my window – it’s hot today and I don’t want to close my window. Can you get down here and make him stop?”
- “Isn’t this building supposed to be secured? Someone has put a block to prop open the front gate and its wide open!! Please send someone to close the gate and tell whoever is doing it to stop.” (At least they said “please”.)
- “Why did you tell my lender I owed rent?”
- “The trash cans in the back are overflowing again. Can you send someone to clean it up?”
- And, as if we are managing properties out in East Africa (we are not) where they reside today, “I think I have a locust infestation. I’ve killed five of them and I’ve heard them mating all week.”
Local and State emergency stay-at-home orders that have shut down businesses and left millions of Americans unemployed has adversely impacted all of us, but no one seems to be talking about how all of this is affecting the typical landlord. Since tenants, by and large, are at home, there are a lot more people at our rental properties. As a result, this situation has created many issues among neighbors who typically do not ever see each other except for, perhaps, mornings or evenings as they pass each other on their way to or from work. Now apartment residents are seeing and hearing each other all day, and rather than talk to their neighbors like civilized adults, they call their landlord to complain about noises, smells, children, pets, and the extra trash that has accumulated in the trash bins from all the take-out meals and Amazon shipments that have been delivered.
In the media, all we hear all day long is about the nurses and doctors working around the clock to save lives. Yes, they are truly exceptional and they are our heroes these days, but just like in any war or major emergency (and this pandemic situation is very much a war although of a different nature), the behind the battle lines support personnel are just as important as those fighting on the front lines – they provide much needed support by helping to supply the needs of front-line personnel. Well, we landlords are the behind the battle line soldiers of today’s pandemic fight. There is no doubt about it.
Since March 2020, the number of calls coming into property management offices and rental property owners for virtually all types of assistance has more than doubled, and in some cases tripled or quadrupled, and property management personnel are often working 10 to 12 hours every day trying to answer questions, calming fears, mediating between neighbors, and oh, let us not forget, also clearing someone’s clogged toilet. Yes, we are all in this together but when it comes to being a landlord, it seems all we hear is that our needs and the struggles we continue to endure simply do not matter – after all they are all rich, right? Well, perhaps in the minds of our ignorant politicians and renters.
Just like any other small business, the City and State are slowly choking the life out of landlords and the rental housing industry. Since the onset of the pandemic, elected officials have been telling us we “can’t charge late fees,” or “no rent increases,” or “no evictions,” or “no attempting to collect rent from a tenant alleging COVID impacts,” but despite all of this, the City of Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, for example, has seen a definite increase in revenue as our water bills have more than doubled and some in cases, tripled and quadrupled. Today, we have more tenants home using water or creating trash for removal, all of which are paid for by us landlords. The City of Los Angeles’ trash hauling monopoly, known as “RecycLA,” has been charging landlords far more for the extra trash created by our renter’s take-out containers and the long list of other discards created by renters while hunkering down at home today. Then there are many other things causing “cost creep” such as all the extra plumbing charges for all the clogged toilets, sinks, bathtubs which have only increased substantially since the lock-down. In the Summer during the heat wave, there was also an increase number of calls as air conditioning units were not working “up to capacity” and vendors had to charge more as replacement parts were more difficult to procure.
These are just a few of the many cost increases we landlords have experienced during last few months following the onset of the pandemic and the restrictions imposed upon us by our City Councils, County Supervisors and members our State Legislature (who by the way have not missed a single paycheck). To make matters worse, we cannot expect to collect more than 25% of the monthly rent due from our impacted tenants, and in some cases no rent at all where local jurisdictions like Los Angeles have regulations that conflict with State Law. Nevertheless, the City of Los Angeles (and other jurisdictions) business licenses and Rent Stabilization fee notices have just arrived and there is no right to defer any of these government mandated taxes and fees. To add insult to injury, substantial late fees and often interest can be levied for failure to pay these taxes and fees timely. In fact, there is a 50% late payment penalty for even being just one day late!
Like many other small business owners such as those in the restaurant business, we landlords are being told to do much more for a lot less or in some cases nothing, and just like the restaurateurs, we are asking ourselves just how long will landlords be able to hold out? Even now, we are hearing our State’s legislators are discussing an extension of all the restrictions endured so far by we rental property owners to save face for their policy failures on handling this crisis. It is easy to shout out “Stop Evictions” when there is a major trend of California residents leaving city centers and even the State. Look at the number of vacancies throughout Los Angeles’ urban areas. These were not a result of “evictions,” but these were a result of tenants leaving their rental units to either buy homes (yes, tenants can afford to and are buying homes – we had a lender call to verify the tenant payment record, who had not paid a us even a “dime” since April 2020) or they are relocating out of state if they simply cannot afford to live in such a high costs of living area any longer, or some are merely moving across the street or to another part of town for a cheaper apartment in what is now a depressed rental market.
No, we landlords are not the villains that our elected officials falsely claim we are – we are only small business owners trying to make ends meet with both our hands tied behind our backs in an environment of higher costs – lower income with no end in sight. Yet, we landlords are some of the true heroes in this crisis, who are trying their very best to keep a roof over our tenant’s heads, their toilets running properly, their stove working properly so they can cook a meal for themselves and their family, and at the same time, we landlords are even dealing with the noisy neighbor next door at all hours of the day that even the police cannot or do not care to do anything about.
So, before you a believe everything you hear in today’s media, as Paul Harvey used to conclude his national radio show, “and there’s the rest of the story.”
Irma Vargas is the Chief Financial Officer of RST and Associates, a property management firm based in Los Angeles, California. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles and served as a past President. Ms. Vargas also owns and manages rental properties in the Los Angeles area of California. RST and Associates services both residential and commercial clients and has approximately 285 properties and 3,000 units under management. You can reach RST and Associates at (310) 477-3192.