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Rent isn't due yet, but that doesn't mean tenants get a free pass

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Posted at 10:13 AM, Apr 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-02 13:21:55-04

BILLINGS — The start of a new month means that rent is due for thousands of Montanans. But the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic continues to cause financial uncertainty for families as many workers are laid off and forced to stay in isolation.

This April, many rent checks won’t be mailed off to landlords after Montana Governor Steve Bullock temporarily suspended all evictions and forbid property owners from charging late fees. But there are still questions surrounding the governor’s directive because it doesn’t mean renters won’t eventually have to pay.

But that doesn’t have to be decided right now, according to the Montana Department of Commerce. “It's basically to relieve some of the pressure off folks, to know that right in the middle of this emergency, they’re not going to be displaced from their homes,” said Bruce Brensdal, housing director for MT DOC.

Brensdal said some of that relief may come in the form of Congress’s $2 trillion stimulus package, which will give millions of Americans a check. Or just some added time for each family to decide how to get through the next weeks without steady pay.

“It does not forgive their rent or their mortgage or any of their payments. It just gives them a little bit of breathing room to figure out what they can and what they need to do,” he said.

The governor’s directive also ensured utilities won’t get shut off either. Things like gas and electric and sewer and water, even internet service can’t go dark.

But the relief won’t last forever, and landlords and property owners may find themselves struggling to make payments of their own.

Because of that, Brensdal said those people should be working with their lenders on options and he hopes that in the coming weeks there is more information coming out of the state and federal level about what other safety nets could be in place for property owners.

The governor's order states: "For the duration of the Directive, landlords are prohibited from terminating a lease or refusing to renew or extend the terms of a current lease agreement, at least on a month-to-month basis. It also prohibits late fees or other penalties due to late or nonpayment of rent, prohibits rent increases except for those previously agreed upon and prohibits landlords from seeking damages in court due to nonpayment of rent. The Directive also stops involuntary sales of homes, foreclosures, liens placed on residential properties or late fees charged due to inability to pay mortgage payments on time for the duration of the Directive. The Directive does not relieve tenants from paying rent or borrowers from paying mortgages or other financial obligations related to homeownership."

The order also prohibits the suspension of utilities during the emergency, including electricity, gas, sewage disposal, water, telephone, or internet services, and prohibits late fees for bills due during the state of emergency outlined in the directive. The Directive also requires public housing authorities to extend deadlines for housing assistance recipients.

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