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3 Things to Know about COVID-19 and Renters' Rights in Montana

Authored By: Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) LSC Funded
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This article will help you understand your renters' rights during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic if you live in Montana. You still have all the rights that you had before the pandemic, plus there are now two new sources of possible protections for renters, as a result of the pandemic.

Please know that situation is changing quickly, and so too could your rights. This article was last updated May 27, 2020. 

 

Latest Updates

  1. On May 19, Governor Bullock modified his directive concerning evictions. Currently, the Governor's halt on evictions only applies to renters who are especially vulnerable to coronavirus and who are sheltering at home. Learn more about these protections for vulnerable people below.  The Governor's previous directive, which covered a wider range of renters (not just those especially vulnerable to coronavirus), expired on May 24.
  2. The State of Montana has authorized the Montana Emergency Housing Program to assist Montana renters who because of COVID-19 lack money for rent or other rental obligations, including security deposits. Visit the Montana Emergency Housing Program page to learn how to apply. 

 

1. No utility shutoffs or late fees on your balance due may be charged to those renters vulnerable to coronavirus who meet the criteria set out in Governor Bullock's Directive.

Governor Bullock has ordered a temporary halt on shutoffs and late fees on the utility services of electricity, gas, sewage disposal, water, phone, or internet services for renters who meet the criteria set out in the Directive: 

  • You must have suffered a significant financial hardship as a result of the virus,
  • You must remain sheltered at home, and
  • And, at least one of these conditions is true for you or someone in your household: a) you are over 65, b) you have a serious health condition, including high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, or asthma, or c) you have an immune system that is compromised, such as by chemotherapy. 

Gov. Bullock's May 19 Directive (p. 3) provides that the limits put on landlord actions (set out in Section I of the March 30, 2020 Directive) do not expire for vulnerable persons until the soonest of these two dates: 30 days after the person stops sheltering at home, or at the end of the COVID-19 emergency.

 

2. A temporary halt on some evictions, late fee charges, and rent increases for renters vulnerable to coronavirus who meet the criteria set out in Governor Bullock's Directive. 

Gov. Bullock has ordered a temporary halt on evictions and other landlord actions resulting from a tenant's nonpayment of rent, utilities, or other monetary obligations for renters who meet the criteria set out in the Directive: 

  • You must have suffered a significant financial hardship as a result of the virus,
  • You must remain sheltered at home,
  • And, at least one of these conditions is true for you or someone in your household:
    • You are over 65,
    • You have a serious health condition, including high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, or asthma, or
    • You have an immune system that is compromised, such as by chemotherapy. 

Under the directive,  a residential landlord in response to a tenant's nonpayment must not:

  • Terminate a tenancy or refuse to extend the terms of a tenancy on at least a month-to-month basis;
  • Charge or accrue late fees, interest, or other charges, penalties, or amounts due from a tenant because of nonpayment of rent;
  • Increase the amount of rent payable under the terms of a rental agreement (except previously agreed increases or reasonable increases reflecting the size of the unit, number of tenants or guests, or services provided by the landlord);
  • Request the suspension or termination of any utilities provided by the landlord to the tenant, because of the tenant's nonpayment of utilities, rents, or other amounts due under the rental agreement; 
  • Report a tenant to a credit bureau for nonpayment of a financial obligation;
  • Seek or collect treble damages based on the failure of a tenant or authorized guest to vacate the premises. "Treble damages" is something available to landlords in some eviction lawsuits. Treble damages could be 3 times the amount of the monthly rent or 3 times the actual out-of-pocket loss experienced by the landlord). You can read the law for yourself at Section 70-24-429, MCA; or
  • Terminate a tenancy or refuse to renew or extend the terms of a residential dwelling tenancy on at least a month-to-month basis.


The Governor's directive also provides:

  • No default judgment can be entered by a court against a tenant in a lawsuit for eviction or for unpaid rent. A default judgment is a final ruling by a court. A judgment is by default when the defendant in the lawsuit (the tenant, in an eviction) fails to file a written answer with the court by the deadline, or fails to appear in court for a hearing. The default judgment would award the landlord what the landlord asked for in the lawsuit.

The Directive's temporary halt on evictions does not expire for vulnerable persons until the soonest of these two dates: 30 days after the person stops sheltering at home, or at the end of the COVID-19 emergency.

Important: Renters covered by Gov. Bullock's directive still need to pay their rent, and comply with their lease agreement. The directive just puts a temporary halt on some actions related to eviction. You can use a free letter to ask your landlord to give you more time to pay the rent

 

3. Relief for some renters in federally-covered tenancies

If your rental includes some federal rental assistance or federal mortgage backing, you may benefit from the federal CARES Act which was passed in response to coronavirus. 

The CARES Act, signed into law by President Trump on March 27, 2020, includes a temporary (120-day) halt on some evictions. The bill puts a temporary, nationwide eviction halt in place for any renters whose landlords have mortgages backed or owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other federal entities.

Landlords with HUD funding, including Housing Choice Voucher or Section 8, and USDA-funded properties, and LIHTC tax credit properties, and properties with a federally-backed mortgage are not allowed to file new eviction actions for non-payment of rent, at least through July 25, 2020.  These landlords also can’t charge renters any fees or penalties for nonpayment of rent.  For more info on CARES, see the National Housing Law Project's CARES Act Eviction Moratorium Summary. If you aren't sure if your rental includes federal assistance, you can use the National Low Income Housing Coalition's searchable map and database to see if your home is covered by the CARES Act.

After July 25, 2020, if the landlord wants to start eviction proceedings against a renter who had been covered by the CARES Act, the landlord must give the renter a 30-day notice of eviction.

Important: Renters in the properties covered by CARES still need to pay their rent. CARES just puts a temporary halt on new eviction court cases for non-payment. You can use a free interactive letter to ask your landlord to give you more time to pay rent.

 

Summary

If you are able to pay your rent, you absolutely should pay it.  Even with the new protections described above, renters in Montana are still responsible for meeting their obligations under the rental agreement. The protections above just give renters more flexibility and more time to figure out how to pay.  If you don't pay your rent for any given month, let's say May, it will not go away. You will still have to pay the May rent at some time in the future. You can apply to the Montana Emergency Housing Assistance Program for help paying your rent.

If you cannot pay your rent, you may be temporarily protected from eviction by one or both of the two new protections for renters, related to coronavirus: 

  1. Gov. Bullock's directive which applies to virus-vulnerable persons, and
  2. The federal CARES Act, for rentals that are federally covered.

See above for the requirements. If you have a Housing Choice Voucher (also called a Section 8 voucher) or your landlord receives funding from HUD, USDA, LIHTC (tax credit), or has a mortgage backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other federal entities, then you are protected from eviction for non-payment of rent at least through July 25, 2020. You may still be evicted for breaking your lease in ways that are not related to non-payment of rent. 

You can use a free do-it-yourself letter to ask your landlord to give you more time to pay the rent. We have two different letters, choose the one that's right for you. 

If you have questions, talk to a lawyer right away.

 


 

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Last Review and Update: May 27, 2020
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