February 2014 Landlord Advocate
The heat is on: Dealing with belligerent tenants.
The heat is on: Dealing with belligerent tenants.
Almost five years ago, when we first published this article, we wrote
These are uncertain and, for some, stressful economic times. The news cycle is relentless – there is story after story about the unavailability of credit or loans, the stunning drop in the stock market, an uncertain job market, a Connecticut state budget crisis, and massive borrowing and spending by the federal government – many within the context of “the government” stepping-in to “solve” the problems. Landlords and tenants can be real life examples of some of these hardships, or their behavior may reflect the underlying concern that many have about the state of the economy and the desire for the government to save the day.
Currently, we face slightly less dire straits, but still economic uncertainty and accompanying stress. Recent news stories are about the large drop in the stock market in 2014, persistent unemployment, a national conversation about income inequality, the Federal Reserve slowly withdrawing from its extraordinary stimulus of the economy, and a health care insurance marketplace unsettled with the rollout of Obamacare. Some tenants will reflect this uncertainty and stress toward their landlord and property management and maintenance staff.
Therefore, landlords and property managers should expect to have a belligerent tenant – a verbally or physically aggressive tenant spouting about a problem involving the property, or property management staff. How do you manage this situation? You must deal with the belligerence, and then you must resolve the underlying issues. Let us turn first to dealing with the belligerence.
The key rules to follow when dealing with a belligerent tenant are:
- Treat the tenant with the same respect and courtesy you expect from the tenant;>
- Demand that the tenant behave in the same manner; and
- Recognize that the tenant (even a belligerent tenant) may have a legitimate complaint.
This tone should be set as early as possible, beginning with the person who first greets the tenant. In the best case, this person should not be the ultimate decision maker. This design demonstrates to the tenant that the landlord is genuinely interested in learning about the tenant’s needs or concerns, while creating that all-important buffer between the tenant and the ultimate decision maker to facilitate productive responses and decisions.
The landlord or property manager should make the first contact person responsible for identifying the tenant’s needs or concerns. Train this individual in the use of open-end>ed questions (those that begin with who, what, where, when, how, and why) and to take notes, so that the first contact person can adequately report the issues to the decision maker. Generally speaking, it is not acceptable for the first contact person to report to the decision maker that the tenant wants to address something generic like “rent,” “maintenance,” or “property condition.”
In the absence of a first contact person in the office, landlords and property managers can use the amenities to their advantage. If there is a water cooler or coffee maker, a terrific way to disarm the belligerent tenant is to offer – and then get for the tenant – something to drink. This gives you a chance to process the issues that the tenant raised, and gives the tenant a chance to reset his/her own thermostat.
What if the tenant does not calm down?
The extreme situation – less likely, but not uncommon – is when the tenant verbally or physically threatens or assaults someone. In this situation, the landlord and property manager’s simple rule should be to call the police immediately to eliminate the risk, and then call their landlord attorney to start a summary process case – no if’s, and’s, or but’s. This does not mean that you have to have the tenant arrested or evicted (although either may be necessary and appropriate), but you will have indelibly established for the community that such behavior will bring swift and certain action by the landlord and property manager.
Over the years, we have learned that this moment can carry great uncertainty for landlords and property managers, and large, negative impact on the property’s time and budget if handled poorly. Therefore, we recommend that the landlord and property manager consult with a landlord attorney to create a policy and procedure for when they should press charges – and how to do so effectively with the police – and when to seek an eviction versus a reinstatement stipulat>ed judgment in housing court.
In the more likely situation, the tenant may remain belligerent, but not cross that line of committing a crime. Landlords, property managers, and their staff should deal with continued tenant belligerence by staying calm, identifying the tenant’s behavior aloud, asking the tenant to change his/her conduct, and identifying the next step if the tenant does not change behavior. That next step can be calling the police or referring the tenant to your landlord attorney for a summary process case. You are running a business, and tenants may not behave in such a way as to interfere with that business.
At this point, you will have resolved the tenant’s belligerence either through excellent interpersonal and meeting skills, or through the involvement of the police, and you can turn toward resolving the underlying issues. The landlord and property manager should ensure that the issues – if real – are resolved quickly and definitively. Usually, this is not a problem, as landlords design their businesses to address property-related issues in such a way to satisfy their tenants with the goal of keeping them as long-term, compliant tenants.
Special situations arise with the tenant who chooses to involve a government entity like the Mayor’s Office, Governor’s Office, Police or Fire Department, and Building or Health Inspector – or, with Project-Based Section 8 properties, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) – rather than (or the same time as) notifying the landlord of their complaint. Often, government agencies will demand that the landlord investigate the complaint and issue a report to the government of the situation and its resolution, no matter how illegitimate or small the issue may be.
Think about the situation from the government agency’s perspective: they may not know whether an issue is legitimate or illegitimate, large or insignificant, and will not want to expose themselves to the tenant’s (their constituent) claim that they did nothing. Therefore, they will naturally demand that you address it – if for no other reason than to create a paper trail that they “did something,” and for you to educate them about it.
In an effort to reduce the time consumption and expense of dealing with this type of situation, many landlords and property managers will simply resolve it and confirm the resolution to the government agency (often verbally) without providing any details about the issue. For example, the response will not address things such as who caused the issue, whether the tenant notified the landlord about it, whether it was legitimate or illegitimate, whether it was large or small, and whether the tenant is in good standing or subject to a summary process (eviction) case. We do not recommend this approach, because it can create longer-term issues for the landlord and property manager. Often, the government will treat the landlord’s straightforward response as an “admission of liability for a legitimate and large issue that the tenant in good standing previously raised with the landlord,” something that often could not be further from the truth.
Unless it is an emergency, a landlord and property manager is not expected or obligated to provide to the government entity all of the information or an answer the complaint right away. We recommend this plan of attack: Call the government representative by phone and simply acknowledge receiving the tenant’s complaint and describe your plan to address it, and then follow-up in writing by email or letter about that plan. Meet your commitments to investigate the issue and report back to the government. Show them that they can count on your word to resolve the situation and educate them about what is happening. If the issue is real and the landlord’s responsibility, resolve it completely and comprehensively. If not, say so in writing to the government. Take the opportunity to develop your reputation with the government entity as a straight shooter.
The key rule here is documentation and detail. Moreover, if the tenant is a repeat-offender with complaints that have no grounds, the landlord and property manager should involve their landlord attorney to assist in delivering that message to the government, and concurrently starting a summary process (eviction) action against the tenant for adversely affecting the community’s operations and finances.
Contact your landlord attorney for guidance and assistance in establishing, implementing, executing, and evaluating your policy and procedure to address belligerent tenants and the resolution of the issues that they present, whether involving a government entity or not.
In the past, we have presented newsletter content explaining how various tenant groups have been working diligently to expand the list of groups defined as protected housing classes. This month, we will once again review two potential additions to the current list that, if approved, may ultimately affect how you run your business.
Let’s first review how the City of New York, which previously had banned former inmates from public housing, plans to now ease those restrictions. This pilot program will be conducted by the NYC Housing Authority, one of the first such programs that will run for a two-year period. While there will be limitations on who is and who is not eligible for the program, the program is intended to respond to HUD’s urging public housing agencies to relax their admissions policies as they relate to former prison inmates.
This situation only magnifies how Fair Housing training and keeping current on proposed housing legislation has never been more important. In addition to the NYC action, we previously reported how advocates and sympathizers are rallying to expand protection for sex offenders. While no fair housing protection is yet in place, there is a growing effort to get sex offenders protected class status under fair housing laws. Where advocates and sympathizers are not successful with direct fair housing law protection, they are proposing laws that protect sex offenders in other ways. Even here in CT there has been proposed legislation that would protect criminals, including many sex offenders, from being denied an apartment based on their past crimes.
In both, we discussed the need for you and your company to stay abreast of the trends and changes in fair housing laws. They are ever changing and often lead down paths that are untrodden and unfamiliar. And, sometimes they are paths that you as a property management company may wish to avoid. The only way to avoid them is to be one of the voices at the table when these new policies are being planned and discussed. Otherwise, they will be imposed on you, whether you like them or not.
The reading of this newsletter does not form an attorney-client relationship. The contents of this newsletter are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Nothing in this newsletter is intended to imply or predict the outcome of any legal matter that you may be considering or be involved in. The Landlord Law Firm makes no warranties of any kind regarding the information contained in this newsletter.