What to do when your senior residents’ health begins to fail

Jason Van Steenwyk
Jason Van Steenwyk | 7 min. read
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Published on September 23, 2015

Sometimes tenants fall on hard times and fail to pay rent or keep up the property through no fault of their own. A common challenge is the plight of senior citizens who want to live independently but are in failing health.  In many cases, they could be exemplary tenants with help from their families or support services in the community. But when those support systems falter, owners and managers can face some tough choices.

As a property owner or manager, you’re used to wearing lots of hats, but you’re not an adult care provider. With some ingenuity and effort, though, you can make a difference, and in many cases, build a mutually beneficial landlord-tenant relationship. Sometimes just a little patience or a thoughtful referral or phone call can do a world of good — and prevent the eviction of an elderly tenant — which nobody wants.

In this article, I share recommendations that can help you reduce risks to senior tenants, your other tenants, and your property — while perhaps also allowing these seniors to continue living in your units independently and safely.

Take action as soon as you notice warning signs

 It’s easier for social workers to do minor interventions and provide basic assistance to allow seniors to live in their homes than it is for them to scramble to find alternative housing when a tenant is about to be evicted. Given the costs of rehabbing and marketing an apartment or rental home, it’s a lot easier on the property owner or manager, too. Take action early, as soon as you see red flags, to give senior residents and their families the opportunity to line up the right support services.

Stick to your standard late notice & eviction protocols

This might sound cold and callous at first, but here goes: When an elderly tenant is late with the rent, don’t delay in issuing a formal notice to cure or vacate. In many cases, that notice actually can help the tenant, because in many communities it can trigger eligibility for assistance programs that don’t come into play until the threat of eviction is documented. For example, where a tenant is having trouble cleaning the apartment, a letter and notice to repair or vacate from you may trigger a social worker to schedule a “heavy cleaning” visit.

Sadly, it’s not unusual for a tenant or tenant advocate to approach an agency for assistance, only to be told to come back when they have a notice to pay or vacate, or a court summons to an eviction hearing.

Here’s an example from my experience: One tenant who had paid reliably on time for years suddenly began to run late on the rent. Every month, this tenant was faced with late fees. Further investigation revealed that the tenant’s Social Security and pension income, which they relied upon to pay the rent, arrived a few days after the deadline. Once identified, this issue was easily and swiftly dealt with.

Make reasonable accommodations for elderly residents

The federal Fair Housing Act (42 U.S.C. §3600) prohibits discrimination against the elderly, and the Americans with Disabilities Act  (ADA) does more than prohibit discrimination against the elderly — it actually requires certain landlords to take proactive steps to provide reasonable accommodation to tenants with disabilities.

Specifically, this law requires landlords, property managers, and their representatives to make “reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices and services when such accommodation may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

Also, keep in mind that the same law prohibits landlords and their representatives from asking health-related questions if a resident does not request a specialized service or facility.

Don’t forgo your rights as landlord, owner, investor, or manager

Remember, though, you aren’t obligated to forgo your rental income, nor to bear the burden of caring for an elderly tenant. Aside from making reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities, you have a right to your rental income, and you don’t have to expose your property to damage or losses that may arise when a client with dementia can no longer clean or care for the dwelling. The Fair Housing Act preserves the rights of landlords to evict tenants that constitute a “direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals in the building.”

So if an inability to clean or maintain an apartment or dwelling becomes an issue that can’t be remedied through reasonable accommodation, and the dwelling begins to attract pests, or if the tenant can’t be entrusted to unplug the iron, or otherwise creates potential hazards to life and property, it’s time to consider eviction.

Caution: Hoarding has recently been classified as a mental disorder

A tendency to hoard alone may not be grounds for eviction, because hoarders may be protected under the ADA. Proceed with caution, since these individuals are now a protected class under federal law.

You can still generally evict or take other action if the individual’s behavior becomes a threat to others’ safety, well-being, and the quiet enjoyment of their home. But you likely can’t evict or discriminate based on the hoarding itself, absent other factors like pest infestation, fire hazards, odors emanating outside the property, threat of significant damage to property, and so on.

More support may be available than you realize

If you think a tenant is having trouble due to advanced age or dementia/Alzheimer’s disease, support is available in many communities to give them the help they need to function. A few examples are:

Final note: Seniors’ desire to live independently may be a golden opportunity

Managing a property with elderly tenants in declining health can be complicated. But there may be a vast market opportunity here, too, for some property owners and management companies.

According to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, occupancy at independent living facilities is over 91 percent.  Baby boomers are now entering their retirement years and represent a massive growth market for creative-minded property owners and managers concerned about helping people in their golden years and capable of navigating the challenges of renting to elderly tenants.

Have you had experiences in dealing with older or infirm tenants? Do you have advice about helping them live safely in your units or turning problems into opportunities? Share your story with your property management peers — leave a comment below.

NOTE: This blog submission is only for purposes of disseminating information. It does not constitute legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is formed by virtue of reading this blog entry or submitting a comment thereto. If you need legal advice, please hire a licensed attorney in your state.

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Jason Van Steenwyk

Jason is a freelance writer and editor, as well as an avid fiddler. His articles have been published in a number of real estate publications including Wealth and Retirement Planner and Bankrate.com. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL with his cat, Sasha, and an unknown number of musical instruments.

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