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Lessons from Court: Real Estate Investors combating the Affordable Housing Crisis

February 1, 2018 2 comments

I took this photo this morning. Even when its cold outside, there is just something about the morning sun rising over Grand Rapids that gets me excited.

IMG_2115

 

Wearing Multiple Hats.

Life is complicated when we wear multiple hats. I’ve written about the multiple hats I wear.

We all wear multiple hats. For example – I am a Christ Follower, a husband, a father, an attorney, a (recent) church elder, a volunteer, a mentor, etc…

 

The two roles that I find colliding most often are as follows:

 

Hat 1. I am an attorney representing business owners including real estate investors.

Hat 2. I am the past-board Chair at Mel Trotter Ministries – and am committed to ending homelessness, one life at a time.

 

Two Universes colliding

My two universes often collide and bring me right into the middle of a thick tension. That tension is highlighted by a scenario I often find myself in, such as the one a few days ago.

 

Recently I walked into the courthouse with a relatively simple task: obtain a Judgment for my client.

 

My client, real estate investor, recently purchased property that had an existing holdover tenant. This tenant had not paid any rent in months.

 

The complicating factor that I discovered when I met the tenant outside the courtroom:

the tenant was a single woman with young children, with no place to go.

 

These are the situations that law school doesn’t prepare you for.

How do I advise my client in this situation?

 

An Affordable Housing Crisis.

I just read an article today from Nick Manes at MIBiz on how in Grand Rapids there is still a Strong Demand for rental real estate.

This article is one of many constant reminders that it is hard to find housing in Grand Rapids, even if you can afford it.

The young lady I met at court, and others similarly situated, could very well find herself homeless.

I am thankful for places like Mel Trotter Ministries where in 2017 over 400 individuals found housing.

 

 

Three Examples of Real Estate Investors being part of the Solution.

I am thankful for those who are willing to work with tenants. In the case above, my client agreed to provide additional time for the tenant to find other housing.

See here for my article on the Eviction Prevention Program – a program implemented last month intended to address the affordable housing crisis in Grand Rapids.

 

Another client scenario comes to mind. This particular client is a well-to-do business owner with a big heart, and entered into the residential real estate rental industry truly to be part of the solution – to provide affordable housing to those in need without gouging those on a fixed budget – even though the market would allow my client to charge higher rent.

This is social entrepreneurship at its finest!

However, in this particular client’s case, my client was “too nice”. He was taken advantage of by a tenant.  In the end, I believe the Landlord’s generosity actually did a disservice to the Tenant by allowing the Tenant to stay months in the property without paying. Certainly the tenant wasn’t helping the landlord by failing to make any efforts to pay.

Many of my clients can’t afford not to receive regular rent. They rely on the rent to pay the mortgage.

This is why it is often said that the affordable housing crisis is complicated.

 

I also think of the private investor who decided last year to work with Mel Trotter Ministries to house and case manage homeless youth – to get them into their own stable housing. This investor knows that he could get more profit on this rental, but is willing to take less money in hopes of changing the lives of homeless male youths.

 

 

A Lesson from these 3 Real Estate Investors….

There are no easy answers here. But what I appreciate about all three of the investors I mentioned above, is that they were all committed to “do something” – maybe somewhat awkwardly at times, maybe with mixed results, but their hearts were in the right place and they all did something to be part of the solution to transforming lives out of homelessness. They were committed to making their community better.

 

Are we willing to step up and be part of the solution, in some capacity?

We can’t do everything, but we can all do something.

 

How are we working to build a better community?

 

E-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

 

 

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Legal Update for Real Estate Investors: Fraud, Harassment, and a Bill to Penalize Falsely Representing Need for a Service Animal.

December 19, 2017 Leave a comment

 

A beautiful end to Tuesday.IMG_2014

Here’s a profound truth those in the real estate industry will readily acknowledge:

Owning and Managing Real Estate is uniquely challenging.

 

I hear it from my Property Owner/Manager clients. I experience it when I am involved in negotiating in landlord/tenant disputes.

If you own or manage investment real estate, you are involved in messy business.

 

I believe that is why, at least in West Michigan, there is an opportunity for good property management companies – and a handful of companies I work with locally do it really well.

DOJ Sues Landlord for Sexual Harassment Allegations

Some of the pitfalls property owners/managers have to watch out for are illustrated in a recent press release announce by the Department of Justice.

Yesterday the Department of Justice announced that it filed suit against Owners and Managers related to allegations of sexual harassment in Kansas properties.

According to the press release, the owner and manager:

 

sexually harassed female residents at the rental properties from at least 2010 to 2014.  According to the complaint, Thong Cao engaged in harassment that included, among other things, making unwelcome sexual advances and comments, engaging in unwanted sexual touching, and evicting tenants who refused to engage in sexual conduct with him.

 

Sexual harassment is a violation of several Federal and State laws.

 

Georgia Real Estate Investor Sentenced to 16 months in Prison

Today, the DOJ announced that a Georgia Real Estate Investor was sentenced to 16 months in Prison for bid rigging public foreclosure sales.

According to the Press Release:

The evidence at trial showed that Purdy and his co-conspirators agreed not to compete for residential real estate at foreclosure auctions in Forsyth County and defrauded lender banks and homeowners.  Among other methods, the conspirators held secret “second auctions” of properties, dividing among themselves the auction proceeds that should have gone to pay off debts against the properties and, in some cases, to homeowners.

 

In today’s real estate market, bidding is competitive. If you are asked to take part in anything like this at your local sheriff’s sale – DON’T DO IT.
Lying About Emotional Support Animals, a Crime?

 

Michigan Law requires a public accommodation to permit the use of a service animal by a person with a disability.

Among other things:

“A public accommodation shall not ask a person with a disability to remove a service animal from the premises due to allergies or fear of the animal. A public accommodation may only ask a person with a disability to remove his or her service animal from the premises if either of the following applies:

(a) The service animal is out of control and its handler does not take effective action to control it.

(b) The service animal is not housebroken” MCL 750.502c

Landlords and property owners should heed the warning of General Deputy Assistant Secretary Bryan Greene of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

“Many people with disabilities require the assistance of an animal to carry out major daily activities,” said  “Complaints alleging disability discrimination now account for the majority of the complaints HUD receives. HUD will continue to enforce the law and educate the public on the rights of people with disabilities in housing.”

.

However, a Michigan Senate bill proposed on November 28, 2017 would make it a crime to falsely represent the need for a service animal to a landlord. Violation would also give right to a Landlord to evict such tenant.

 

This is an interesting bill. I look forward to seeing if it gains any traction.

 

 

Two takeaways from this news headline:

 

1. It is worth being proactive and engaging legal counsel. 

Issues arise. When in doubt, e-mail or call your attorney.

 

2. Residential Real Estate Investment is highly regulated.

If you are a landlord leasing out “residential” property as opposed to purely commercial property (business tenant), you are under much more stringent regulations. You must comply with Federal laws, like the Fair Housing Act and state laws, like the Michigan Truth in Renting Act. Make sure you are operating lawfully.

 

Questions? Comments?

email: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Legal Update for Commercial and Residential Property Managers, Investors: Winter is Here. Are you Prepared?

December 11, 2017 Leave a comment

The snow is coming down in Grand Rapids! I took this photo last week from my office – ice skating has officially started.

IMG_1951

 

With the winter months – comes an issue for landlords, property managers, and real estate investors…

icy sidewalks and parking lots.

These types of conditions are a primary reason why investors hold real estate in LLCs.

Two recent Michigan court cases came out where tenants sued their landlords for injuries related to slip and falls on icy sidewalks/parking lots:

Schuster v River Oaks Garden Apartments

Ferguson v Lautrec LTD

The claims in both cases had to do with a Landlord’s statutory duty under Michigan Compiled Laws 554.139(1)(a) to keep the Property kept fit for its intended use.

 

In General:

A Difference Between Commercial and Residential Leases – FREEDOM OF CONTRACT

The above mentioned duty is one created by Michigan statute. It does not apply to Landlords/Property Managers or owners of commercial real estate with commercial tenants.

In the residential context, tenants have certain statutory rights, in addition to contractual. These rights provide extra protection from a landlord’s ability to evict the tenant and are found in such places as “Landlord Tenant Relationship Act” and “Truth in Renting Act”.

One such right of a tenant – the residential property must be kept fit for its intended use and in reasonable repair. These conditions must be met in order for a landlord to otherwise evict a breaching tenant. Stated otherwise, the covenant to pay rent is not an independent covenant to a landlord’s duty to keep the property fit for its intended use and in reasonable repair.

In a commercial context the courts’ mantra is “Freedom of Contract“. The Court will look at the contract that the parties’ agreed to, and, absent extraordinary circumstances, enforce it by its term. (therefore in  a commercial lease you might see language such as the following “rent is due with no right of offset, setoff, counterclaim…”) In such instance, the landlord is telling the tenant that tenant has no right to withhold rent just because landlord may have breached a duty under the lease.

The Courts have recognized that commercial landlords and tenants are “free to contract”

 

Going back to our Case Studies…

Two Cases of Icy Conditions – different results

Ferguson Case

Ferguson was a tenant who slipped and fell on the sidewalk outside of her apartment building. In court, she argued that defendant was  “liable for her injuries because it breached its duty to maintain the common area of the apartment, i.e., the sidewalk, in a condition fit for its intended use as required under MCL 554.139(1)(a).” Id. page 1.

The Court disagreed.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
MCL 554.139(1)(a) provides the following:

(1) In every lease or license of residential premises, the lessor or licensor
covenants: (a) That the premises and all common areas are fit for the use intended by the
parties.

Courts have held that “sidewalks . . . constitute ‘common areas’ under MCL 554.139(1)(a).”).

The question the Court asked was: what is “fit” mean in this context?

“Our Supreme Court defined “fit” as “adapted or suited; appropriate,” Allison v AEW Capital Mgt, LLP, 481 Mich 419, 429; 751 NW2d 8 (2008), quoting Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (1997) (quotation marks omitted), and a sidewalk’s intended purpose is for walking, Benton, 270 Mich App at 444.” Id. page 2-3

Defendant, therefore, has a duty to keep the sidewalk adapted or suited for walking.

The court reviewed the facts, as presented in the trial court and affirmed that “In this case, the sidewalk was not unfit simply because there was a patch of ice”. Id. 3

 

Schuster

“According to plaintiff, [Schuster,] the fall occurred as she took her first steps onto the sidewalk surrounding the complex’s mailbox kiosk. As a result of her fall, plaintiff broke her ankle requiring surgical repair with hardware placement.” Id pg 1.

The Court dismissed her claim, finding that Schuster failed to present evidence that the sidewalk was not fit for its intended use.

On appeal, Defendant does not dispute that the sidewalk was intended for walking and specifically for access to the apartment complex mailboxes. However it argues that the sidewalk, even if ice covered,  was fit for its intended purpose.” Id. pg 3-4.

The Court, like in Ferguson, relied on the Michigan Supreme Court decision of Allison:

“In Allison v AEW Capital Mgt, LLP, 481 Mich 419; 751 NW2d 8 (2008), the Supreme
Court considered a landlord’s statutory duty regarding common areas, particularly as concerns natural accumulations of snow and ice. It held that “the natural accumulation of snow and ice is subject to the lessor’s duty established in MCL 554.139(1)(a)” to keep the premises and common areas “fit for the use intended by the parties.” Id. at 438.

The Court held that  the duty of the Landlord was to provide “reasonable access” to
pedestrians seeking to use it. Id. pg 4.

The Plaintiff, Schuster, claimed the sidewalk was “dangerous”.

The Court of appeals noted; “[t]here is substantial evidence that the conditions, as predicted, developed overnight and that by the time of plaintiff’s fall, they were severe.” Id page 3.

The  Defendant Apartment Complex claimed that the presence of snow/ice was merely “inconvenient”.

The Court held that such “genuine dispute” of fact must be presented to a judge or jury. The Court reversed the trial court and sent it back.

 

Another interesting argument – Defendant claimed that it had no “notice” of the icy conditions.

The Court held that “notice” was not a prerequisite to the landlord’s duty to keep the property in good condition.

“We initially note, as we did in our previous opinion in this case, that there do not appear to be any published decisions that establish that notice of the condition is required to establish a breach of the duty under MCL 554.139(1)(a).” Id. Page 5.

Lessons:

  • Whether or not the presence of ice or snow on sidewalks presents a breach of a Landlord’s duty to keep the property fit for its intended use is a “highly factual inquiry”.  It depends on the facts of each case – which is what Schuster and Ferguson demonstrate.

 

  • A Landlord likely cannot avoid its duty to keep the property fit for its intended use by claiming a “lack of notice” of the existence of an icy condition.

 

  • If you are a commercial landlord with a commercial tenant – FREEDOM OF CONTRACT.

Questions? Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Real Estate Investors and Property Managers – Update on the “Bed Bug Bill”

October 31, 2017 1 comment

Today is Halloween so I thought would write on a topic that gives me the creeps…. bed bugs.

 

Courtesy BedBugs.org

Infestations can be an issue that every property manager or owner of residential investment real estate may face.

 

One June 9th Michigan House Bill 4719 was introduced – by Representative Brandt Iden -himself a Developer and Property Manager in South West Michigan. check out the text here – the Bill would amend the Michigan statute governing landlord tenant relationships to include addressing the control of certain pests – including bed bugs.

Recent Update

There has been no noticeable progress, except that the House Fiscal Agency prepared its legislative analysis a few weeks back – you can check it out here

What the Bill seeks to do:

Impose certain duties on landlords regarding bed bugs:

1. Mandates specifically that the Landlord is to keep the rental space free from bed bugs and provide educational literature about bed bug infestations to new tenants.

2. Prohibits Landlords from renting out space that the landlord knows is infested with bedbugs

3. Provides specific requirements for a landlord to respond to a complaint of bed bugs:

  • within 7 days of receiving a complaint, Landlord shall order an inspection for bed bugs;
  • within 7 days of confirming infestation, Landlord shall begin control and schedule inspections of adjoining rental units.

4. Limits damages against Landlord for infestations unless caused by Landlord’s Negligence.

Impose certain duties on tenants regarding bed bugs:

1. Tenant shall inspect for bed bugs when first occupying the space;

2. Tenant shall not move “infested property” into a rental unit

3. Tenant shall notify Landlord within 2 days of notice of infestation.

4. Tenant responsible for damages due to bed bugs caused by Tenant, or guest.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Law and Justice.

Something that the legislative analysis highlights –

“Notwithstanding any other provision of the Landlord-Tenant Act, the landlord and tenant could agree in writing (by hard copy) or electronic mail how responsibility would be assigned for costs resulting from an infestation, including, but not limited to, costs of
control or treatment.”

This would provide some discretion among the parties to craft a resolution.

My thoughts:

Bedbug infestation is a problem. It can cause tenants problems, particularly in lower income housing. As reference, I would highly recommend reading Matthew Desmond’s book “Evicted” It is no secret that Michigan, particularly Kent County, is experiencing an Affordable Housing Crisis.  Further, unhappy tenants who withhold rent can cause landlord problems that end up in court.

This type of bill could provide clarity to landlords and tenants on their reciprocal duties and rights in such circumstances. It could also provide them flexibility to come up with a resolution to get rid of any infestations.

Questions? Comments?

email: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Real Estate Law Update: Bill Moves Forward Allowing Single Member LLCs To Evict Tenants without Legal Representation

September 28, 2017 Leave a comment

 

UPDATE ON PROPOSED House Bill 4463 – Would Allow LLCs to Evict wi

thout Legal Representation.

House Bill 4463 was introduced in March and referred to the  committee on law and justice.

 

The Bill would allow owners of a single-member LLC (or a married couple under certain conditions) to file their own eviction actions on behalf of the LLC witho

2017-09-14 15.04.09

ut the need for legal representation.

If the Landlord is seeking money damages, the amount, not including taxable costs, must be under the small claims Court maximum.

Back in May, the Bill came out of the committee on law and justice and

 

a substitute bill was referred for a second reading.

Just 8 days ago the substitute was adopted. Yesterday the Bill was

referred to the Judiciary Committee.
The Major Difference in the Substitute Bill as Adopted.

The major revision that came out of the committee affects property managers.

The Bill as introduced would have allowed property managers or agents to represent the LLC under certain circumstances – e.g. – having personal knowledge of the relevant facts related to the Property and tenancy.

That language was removed from the first version of the bill.

Under the substitute bill, Property Managers or other Agents would not be allowed to represent the LLC.

Further, this is a “burden shifting” mechanism in the substitute bill – the law would place the burden on the LLC owner to prove he or she is in compliance with the statute. That makes sense – since the legislature would be creating an exception to the rule – only lawyers practice law.

 

A Divisive Issue: To be, or not to be your own lawyer?

I commented that I would be surprised if this bill passes, although other states have similar laws.  The reason I was surprised is demonstrated a legislative analysis that came out just a few days ago.

 

A recent Legislative Analysis highlights the extreme opposite view points – those expressed by Real Estate Investors and Real Property Owner Associations, and those of Attorneys and Judges.

 

 

To Hire an Attorney or Not?

As I stated in my last post, the Bill makes sense for Landlords who want quick and cost-effective resolutions. I understand that an Investor who is not making money on a tenant also doesn’t want to expend additional legal fees to evict a Tenant. This is particularly true since the most attorney fees that a Landlord can recover against a residential tenant is limited to the statutory amount (currently $75).

All business owners make this same business decision –

at what point can I handle a legal matter myself and at what point do I pick up the phone and call my lawyer?

 

However, I will refer readers back to the lawyer who has a fool for a client…

 

Questions? Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Real Estate Investors & Property Managers Should Avoid These Pitfalls: DOJ and Landlord Settle Allegations of Family Discrimination.

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve said it before, owning and managing real estate is challenging. Particularly residential real estate.

I hear it from my Property Owner and Property Manager clients. I experience it when I am involved in negotiating in landlord/tenant disputes.

2017-08-10 08.14.57-1

 

 

Some of the pitfalls property owners have to watch out for are illustrated in a Wednesday, September 6  Department of Justice Press Release.

The Department of Justice issued a press release today concerning a lawsuit settlement reached with a Landlord and Tenant over Discrimination Charges brought by the Federal Government. You can review that press release here.

 

 

According to the press release, the Federal government alleged in its complaint filed in March 2017 that “in March 2014 defendant Appleby told a woman seeking an apartment for herself, her husband and their one-year-old child that the apartment buildings were “adult only.

The complaint also alleged that defendants advertised their apartments as being in “adult buildings.

Not good.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and disability.

As stated by Acting Assistant Attorney General John M. Gore, of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Fair Housing Act prohibits apartment owners and managers from denying housing to families because they have children…We will continue to vigorously enforce the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition of discrimination against families with children.

 

I’m speculating, but maybe the landlord didn’t know the law.

I wonder, did the landlord/property owner ever consult with legal counsel on its practices?

On a personal level, this type of practice of discriminating against families is unfortunate, especially considering we are in an affordable housing crisis.

In Kent County Michigan, it is reported that 2,098 school-aged kids are reported homeless.

 

 

There are some lessons to be learned for landlords, property owners, managers, and real estate investors.

Two takeaways from this news headline:

1. It is worth engaging legal counsel. 

Issues arise. When in doubt, e-mail or call your attorney.

 

2. Residential Real Estate Investment is highly regulated.

If you are a landlord leasing out “residential” property as opposed to purely commercial property (business tenant), you are under much more stringent regulations. You must comply with Federal laws, like the Fair Housing Act and state laws, like the Michigan Truth in Renting Act, and Landlord Tenant Relationship Act. Make sure you are operating lawfully.

 

Questions? Comments?

email: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Real Estate Investors and Property Managers Should Keep Track of this “Bed Bug Bill”

2015-11-05 11.34.56During the school year I mentor students at a local school in the West side of Grand Rapids. This school has a great supportive community behind it – as you can see from the photo I took a few years back.

I recall a conversation with one student whose family was transient – moving quite often and usually under unfortunate conditions.  This student recalled to me the time that he and his mom lived in an apartment for a brief time and had to leave because of bed bugs. The emotion on the kid’s face as he recalled the story was evident.  It was not a pleasant experience.

Last year a class action case against a Real Estate Owner reached a settlement involving payment of over $2 Million to 100 tenants – ABAJournal reported that story here

One of the primary complaints was that “the 26-unit building had a massive cockroach infestation.

Infestations can be an issue that every property manager or owner of residential investment real estate may face.

One June 9th Michigan House Bill 4719 was introduced – by Representative Brandt Iden -himself a Developer and Property Manager in South West Michigan. check out the text here – the Bill would amend the Michigan statute governing landlord tenant relationships to include addressing the control of certain pests – including bed bugs.

What the Bill seeks to do:

Impose certain duties on landlords regarding bed bugs:

1. Mandates specifically that the Landlord is to keep the rental space free from bed bugs and provide educational literature about bed bug infestations to new tenants.

2. Prohibits Landlords from renting out space that the landlord knows is infested with bedbugs

3. Provides specific requirements for a landlord to respond to a complaint of bed bugs:

  • within 7 days of receiving a complaint, Landlord shall order an inspection for bed bugs;
  • within 7 days of confirming infestation, Landlord shall begin control and schedule inspections of adjoining rental units.

4. Limits damages against Landlord for infestations unless caused by Landlord’s Negligence.

 

Impose certain duties on tenants regarding bed bugs:

1. Tenant shall inspect for bed bugs when first occupying the space;

2. Tenant shall not move “infested property” into a rental unit

3. Tenant shall notify Landlord within 2 days of notice of infestation.

4. Tenant responsible for damages due to bed bugs caused by Tenant, or guest.

 

 

The bill was referred to the Committee on Law and Justice.

 

My thoughts:

Bedbug infestation is a problem. It can cause tenants problems.  Unhappy tenants who withhold rent can cause landlord problems that end up in court.

 

This type of bill could provide clarity to landlords and tenants on their reciprocal duties and rights in such circumstances.

 

Questions? Comments?

email: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka