The positive impact of introducing yourself to local government.
In previous newsletters, we have discussed pending bills being considered by the Connecticut legislature, and recommended that landlords and property managers join a landlord organization with strong, active membership and a presence at the State Capital to ensure that your voice is heard before any of those bills become laws. However, many existing and new laws and regulations affecting landlords happen at the local level (meaning your city or town), not just with the state or federal governments. Will your landlord organization be present at the local level? It depends on the significance of the subject, but most likely, the answer is “no.”
So, if the ball is in your court, how do you start making an impact at the local level?
First, there are usually building, fire, housing, and health codes, and other local codes, ordinances, and regulations, that apply to your apartment or commercial buildings and to your tenants – go get a copy and read them. We recommend that our clients read these publications at least once to familiarize themselves with the “rules of the road” for their city or town.
A word of recommendation before you begin – do not set yourself a standard of “expertise” while reading; instead, read for simple understanding and awareness. This is important because if you expect full comprehension when you are reading, there is a strong possibility you will never get through the material. If you stumble with some provision while reading for understanding and awareness, put a Post-It note next to that section and revisit it after you have completed reading everything once.
You may be amazed at what you find in these documents – the unauthorized occupant or hoarding problem you are having with a tenant may violate a local housing code and, as the landlord, you (yes, you) can call the housing department to have a city inspector handle the matter for you. As one client recently learned to their astonishment with a tenant’s housing code violation, the housing inspector can order the tenant to remedy the issue immediately or face arrest (yes, arrest). As you can imagine, the threat of arrest can make a substantial difference in the likelihood and speed with which a tenant remedies the issue.
Do you have a pest management company offering you a “new” approach to eradicating bed bugs? Well, you may find that its approach requires a special permit or approval, or the approach could violate a local health ordinance straightaway. Either way, hiring that contractor blindly could result in your being in even deeper trouble than having bed bugs in the first place. On the flip side, the governing ordinance may not presume that bed bugs are the landlord’s sole responsibility to address, and there could be an approach – if you follow certain steps, or complete and submit certain documents – that enables you to shift responsibility (and perhaps financial obligation) to the tenant.
In short, reading your local codes, ordinances, and regulations will help you manage your business and properties, both operationally and with local law compliance. Indeed, it will help you deal with the code inspectors if they are ever at your property. Remember, you do not have to tell them that you read the code (unless it helps you), but having a familiarity or understanding of the topic always helps in communication and resolution of matters.
Second, ask your local government officials whether they are considering any code or regulation changes. You may agree with what they are trying to accomplish, and then can become an advocate for the changes. You may disagree, and then you will have given yourself a chance to influence the discussion and perhaps the resulting change. The key is engagement.
Be prepared for responses from local officials that start with amazement, incredulity, or even standoffishness, and be ready to assure them that you are sincere. Indeed, if you engage effectively with them, the local officials may even ask if you have a concern about a particular subject or ordinance that they could consider changing (or interpreting and applying differently). You do not need to have an answer ready at that moment, but take advantage of the opportunity at some point and get back to them.
Finally, keep in mind the interpersonal aspect of dealing with your local government. The power of introducing yourself to local government and its laws lies in the person-to-person interaction that takes place. City and town officials are human and – like all of us – are oriented to be more patient and understanding with those landlords and property managers that they know, and who have shown an interest and willingness to comply with the law. They realize that local codes, ordinances, and regulations are not always the first thing reviewed by companies when running their businesses and you will be a breath of fresh air when you do so.
Contact your landlord attorney if you are looking for a good place to start with local government engagement, or if your review of local codes, ordinances, and regulations raises any legal or operational issues for you.
Know your landscape.
What? An attorney writing about landscaping? Not so fast. The landscape to which I refer is that of your relationship with your residents. And, that landscape design is found in the lines, paragraphs, and pages of your lease.
Over the past few months, a number of our clients have promoted new managers and/or hired new personnel. This “changing of the guard” has as usual, prompted questions from these new employees regarding their rights and obligations to their residents. And, as in the past, we invariably refer them to their lease as a perfect starting point.
One of the most common questions we are asked relates to the laws regarding the landlord-tenant relationship. And, while the laws may exist, they are limited in scope and leave much (if not most) of the landlord-tenant relationship to the individual parties. This then leaves you, as the landlord, free to define that relationship with an effective, comprehensive lease.
So, why is this important to know? Because the more educated you are regarding what your lease does and/or does not address, the better equipped you will be when residents come asking, when you approach your attorney for assistance, or more importantly, when you are expected to enforce that lease because someone has violated its terms.
Your lease is the most critical component in your relationship with your tenants. As an example, without a lease you cannot collect rent. Without a lease in place, any payments received are not legally considered “rent” and if you don’t get that payment you were awaiting, your legal rights are severely compromised. What could have been a simple solution for the tenant’s failure to pay rent, just became much more complicated and costly.
Another example has recently been floating around in several jurisdictions. Some local governments, in their endless efforts to raise more revenue, have identified landlords in their boundaries as the best source of that additional money by imposing newly authorized fees. Regardless of the justifications offered, the reality is that landlords could be significantly and financially impacted from these imposed levies. Does your lease provide you the necessary support to transfer those fees onto your residents so you are not left footing the bill?
Know everything you can about the most important document in your profession. It will prove beneficial in many immeasurable ways and will make sure you navigate your landscape most effectively.