Dear Penny: My Tenant Owes 4 Months’ Rent, but He Knows I Can’t Evict Him

An apartment building in Chicago, IL.
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Dear Penny,

I own a six-unit apartment building. One tenant with a wife and child has not paid rent since March. He is a taxi driver. He told me he lost his job and the governor said on TV he does not have to pay rent if he doesn’t have it. 

In four months, he gave me a payment of $375. His monthly rent is $1,050.

He has a roof over his head, gets free water and heat, has one free parking spot and pays us nothing.

I worry he will use the situation and not pay for months to come, then move out and we’ll never see our rent money.

We worked so hard all our lives to have something for old age. I’m 80 and need the income.

To hire a lawyer would require spending more money, and it could take months to evict them. 

What can we do to get paid by this family? What right does an owner have? 


Dear H.,

Governors can’t just snap their fingers and make a tenant’s rent obligation disappear. Your tenant is still responsible for that payment. But you aren’t allowed to kick the family out of the apartment for not paying while the moratorium is in effect.

Some people are no doubt abusing eviction moratoriums aimed at preventing an unprecedented wave of homelessness. But I think there’s a good chance this man isn’t one of them.

Your tenant’s way of earning a living has been put on hold. Even as life returns to some degree of normal, we aren’t returning to airports or bar hopping en masse. Plus a lot of people are still working from home. That adds up to a lot less demand for cab drivers. The fact that he gave you even $375 instead of $0 suggests to me that he was making some effort.

That said, you’re a landlord, not a charity. Your way of earning a living has been affected as well.

Since this is an important source of income for you, I think you need to shell out the money for a consultation with a local attorney. There’s a complicated mix of state, local and federal protections, and you need to understand all the rules you’re dealing with. The goal here isn’t to rev up the engine so you can start eviction proceedings the second the moratorium expires. It’s simply to understand what your rights are.

In the interim, your ability to collect rent depends on your tenant. So if possible, you need to talk to him to better understand his situation and see if you can reach a compromise.

Your tenant may not have money to pay you right now, but perhaps he expects to have money soon. If he drives a taxi, he’s probably an independent contractor. While independent contractors qualify for unemployment under the CARES Act, the process they have to go through to get those benefits has been especially messy.

If he’s waiting for benefits or applying for jobs, maybe you could agree that he’ll resume paying rent once he has income again. Or perhaps he could make reduced payments for now so that you’re at least getting something. If he paid a security deposit and last month’s rent, you may also be able to use those for rent. Talking to an attorney about these options is key, because you may need an amendment to your tenant’s lease.

A local attorney may also know about renter relief programs available through your city or state. With these programs, the tenant usually applies for assistance, but the payments are made to the landlord, so you’ll need your tenant to cooperate.

You may also qualify for other forms of relief. If you have a mortgage on the building, you might be able to defer payments if you can document that you’ve lost rental income due to coronavirus.

Even if you can’t reach a compromise — either because your tenant refuses to talk to you or he genuinely has no money — it’s always better to know what you’re dealing with. At least if you know there’s zero chance of collecting anything for now, you can adjust your plans accordingly.

You need to make peace with the fact that you may not ever get your uncollected rent. If you evict the tenant, your odds are pretty much zilch. And if your tenant goes back to work and resumes payments, his income isn’t going to skyrocket to a level where he can suddenly pay back four months’ rent.

Ultimately, eviction may be necessary. But you and your tenant will be better off if you can avoid it. Work together if at all possible, and use the courts as a last resort.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].