State officials look to clarify eviction issues amid Covid-19 emergency
Tenants must still pay their rent, according to AG’s memo
After an emergency order barring the start of eviction proceedings during the Covid-19 crisis caused a wave of concern among landlords, state officials say tenants are still on the hook for their rent.
According to a memo issued April 3 by New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, Gov. Chris Sununu’s emergency order is meant to provide wiggle room so those who are struggling to come up with their rent payments during the crisis can delay them until the state of emergency is lifted. Once that happens, renters will still be required to pay what they owe in full.
In a news release the same day, Sununu also said his emergency order, issued March 17, does not entitle tenants to free rent. He urged tenants to do their best to continue paying as they normally would.
“We all have an obligation to be good neighbors and treat each other fairly, and this extends to both landlords and tenants,” Sununu said in the release. “I strongly encourage all tenants who have difficulty paying their rent to work with their landlord to develop a payment plan and pay what they can.”
Sununu said many of those who are having trouble paying their rent are eligible to receive unemployment benefits that would help their finances while the crisis is ongoing.
While evictions are put on hold by the governor’s order, New Hampshire attorney Brian Shaughnessy noted that “there are extreme situations where a landlord may be able to receive a temporary order from a court prohibiting a particular person from entering the building.”
Also, according to MacDonald’s memo, the order does not apply to evictions due to violations of the law or conditions in the lease.
Domestic violence cases
Prior to the governor’s emergency order, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an order on March 16 suspending all eviction hearings, but indicated that emergency petitions could still be filed.
These petitions are typically filed by a tenant when a landlord engages in a prohibited practice such as locking a tenant out without filing an eviction action and obtaining a court order. However, Shaughnessy points out that state law also prohibits a tenant from willfully denying other tenants their right to quiet enjoyment of their tenancies and a landlord is also permitted to file a petition under this law.
In domestic violence cases, according to attorney Elliot Berry of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, “The victim can get an order removing her abuser by filing a (domestic violence) petition in the circuit court, which are still taking these cases.”
Shaughnessy, who is president of the New Hampshire Bar Association’s Pro Bono program, issued a letter to his clients on April 2 that clarifies the emergency order and provides guidance for both landlords and tenants.
In the letter Shaughnessy writes:
“While there are many plans being discussed that may provide financial assistance for rent and mortgage payments, this emergency order does not remove the tenant’s obligation to pay rent, it only suspends a landlord’s ability to start an eviction during the state of emergency.
“ … We anticipate that some tenants may need to arrange payment plans, or otherwise wait until some Government assistance is made available in order to make the required rental payments. We are willing to work with our tenants in order to get through this unprecedented emergency and are asking for our tenants to cooperate with us in good faith as we all get through this together.”
Landlords, according to Shaughnessy, will be able to demand any back rent they have accumulated after the order expires. New Hampshire law, he said, allows a landlord to proceed with an eviction if the demanded rent is not paid within seven days.
“Whether a landlord chooses to start the eviction process right away, or work with the tenant through a payment plan, will depend on many factors,” Shaughnessy said, “including the amount of the back rent owed, and the good faith efforts made by the tenant to keep current or enter into payment plans with the landlord.”
Questions about landlord-tenant issues have produced a steady number of calls about the current legal uncertainties and questions that people in the Granite State are having. They are currently being handled by New Hampshire Legal Assistance, the Legal Advice Referral Center and the Pro Bono Program. Qualified lower income residents can ask questions on Free Legal Answers, which will be answered by Pro Bono attorneys at nh.freelegalanswers.org.
This article is being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.