The elderly can make fantastic tenants. The mistakes of youth are behind them, they infrequently engage in criminal activities, and if they are taking Social Security or are pension beneficiaries, they have reliable incomes.
Elderly tenants also present some unique concerns for the landlord. These concerns include:
- Housing discrimination compliance
- Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and handicapped accessibility issues
- Eviction concerns
- Health problems
- Mental health issues, including dementia and hoarding
In some cases, elderly clients have occupied rent-controlled units for a long time, creating a revenue pinch for landlords who could get more income if the current tenant moved. This creates a powerful incentive to create problems for the elderly tenant in hopes they move on – a course of action which, if found to be discriminatory, is almost always illegal.
Let’s look at some of the issues.
Age Discrimination Against Elderly Tenants
When screening prospective tenants, you may not discriminate against them on the basis of age. That’s a violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 as well as the federal Fair Housing Amendments Act. These acts prohibit:
- Anything that smacks of a discriminatory statement in advertising or marketing.
- Lying and say a unit is not available when it is.
- End a lease, or refuse to renew one, for a discriminatory reason, under federal law (Specifically, 42 United States Code, Sections 3601-3619 and 3631.)
- You don’t have to favor elderly applicants or tenants, but you can’t disfavor them, either, by imposing extra requirements for them.
Elderly Tenants with Disabilities
Discrimination against elderly tenants with disabilities is also prohibited. You also can’t ask about them. Even if there are mental health issues that are readily apparent, you cannot make your decision to lease or not lease based on a disability.
As a landlord, you must make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities – at your expense, not the tenant’s. You may have to do things like install grip rails in showers or allow for an assistance animal when you normally don’t take pets. You may need to provide a reserved handicapped parking space near the dwelling entrance. The law generally does not require small-scale landlords to make major structural changes.
The applicable law here is generally the Americans with Disabilities Act, although sections of the Fair Housing Act may also apply. For example, while the ADA only allows for service dogs in public accommodations, the Fair Housing Act also requires landlords to accept therapy animals that do not perform a specific task for the owner.
Exemptions: The federal fair housing laws don’t apply to buildings with four units or fewer if the owner lives on premises, nor to single-family homes rented without using advertising and without a broker. However, this is limited to three houses per landlord.
Help Elderly Tenants by Enforcing Rent Rules
Don’t let your tenant fall hopelessly behind in rent payments. Some charitable agencies will not assist tenants who are more than 30 days behind in rent, for example. The focus will not be on getting you paid, but on finding new housing for the tenant. By letting a struggling tenant slide on rent, you may actually make things more difficult for the tenant and endanger your own financial situation. Take action to collect, support, assist and evict without delaying.
If an elderly tenant is routinely late with the rent payment, it may be because a Social Security or pension payment comes at a certain time each month. Landlords can go a long way toward keeping a good tenant by simply adjusting the rent due date.
How to Combat Hoarding
Normally, you can evict a tenant for failure to maintain the property. But hoarding is a clinical disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association, so hoarding tenants may be protected under the Fair Housing Act.
However, even those protected under the Fair Housing Act are still obligated to protect the structure and property from damage and comply with health and safety regulations. Landlords don’t have to tolerate unsafe conditions. So while you can’t evict a tenant for hoarding, you can evict for issues like these:
- Improper storage of hazardous materials
- Attracting rodents or pests
- Blocking emergency exits
- Damaging or interfering with fire prevention systems
- Unauthorized or excessive pets (other than service or therapeutic animals)
- Similar considerations apply to elderly patients whose infirmities make it difficult for them to care for themselves and the dwelling.
To protect your rights, document the problems carefully, taking photographs of hoarding, hygiene or other issues. You may work with the tenant and any family members to create a cleanup plan and some follow-up inspections to ensure the work is done.
Evicting Elderly Tenants
In many jurisdictions, local and state governments provide some extra layers of protection to elderly clients. If you find yourself needing to evict an elderly individual, check with an attorney first. If you do have to evict an elderly tenant, you would do well to be able to show the court that you have attempted to assist him or her with referrals to outside agencies and assistance programs (see below).
Help Available for Elderly Tenants
Nobody wants to evict a good tenant. This is particularly true of elderly tenants who may have a tough time getting established elsewhere. If you are having problems with an elderly tenant, you may be able to arrange for some assistance to avoid an eviction, which would be expensive and traumatic for both of you.
For example, the Los Angeles Foundation on Aging has an Elderly Tenant Program that includes assistance for tenants struggling with hoarding.
You can also contact a variety of organizations that may help your tenant with day-to-day activities, financial management, housekeeping, cash assistance for eviction prevention, and the like.
There are a number of paid organizations that may help elderly tenants going through challenges:
- The Red Cross
- Catholic charities (the tenant doesn’t have to be Catholic to be eligible for assistance)
- Visiting Angels
- The Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program
- Long-term care insurance carriers (if the tenant has a policy)
- Local churches and synagogues
- Local offices of elder care
- County health nurses
Sometimes a short-term cash assistance program can buy enough time for a family member to intervene, or your tenant to find an alternative solution – while still protecting your interests and right to the agreed-upon rent.