By Joanne Cleaver
Your landlord can ask about the emergency income you might receive from the federal government to make it through the COVID-19 crisis, but you don’t have to tell.
The pandemic doesn’t erase your privacy rights as a tenant or as an individual, Alice Kwong, co-chief counsel of housing law at Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), told Digital Privacy News.
“Just because the landlord asks about your stimulus check, you have no legal requirement to answer that question,” she said.
LSNJ is a nonprofit that helps state residents with urgent legal matters, which often involve tenants’ rights. Most states have similar organizations, which can help local renters understand how the laws of their states might apply to their relationships with their landlords.
As the coronavirus pandemic inflicts widespread unemployment, reduced working hours, massive small-business closures and other economic pain, governments at all levels have responded with economic help and expanded legal protection for tenants.
Many municipalities and states have suspended evictions, ensuring that even tenants who cannot pay their rent will not be homeless during a huge public-health crisis.
By Thursday, more than 22 million Americans had filed for unemployment help, the U.S. Labor Department reported, and millions of businesses had reduced hours, paychecks, or both.
Americans are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the economic-impact payments, which can total as much as $2,400 for a married couple filing jointly, approved last month as part of a $2 trillion federal stimulus plan.
But landlords are waiting for tenants to get those checks, too, as many of them expect at least some of the money to flow immediately to them.
Landlords can ask if you’ve received your stimulus check, but they can’t insist that you pay them first — or only, Kwong said.
“It’s not the landlord’s business what the tenant does with their income,” she told Digital Privacy News. “They can have that conversation, but the tenant has the right to say, ‘I don’t need to tell you this information.’”
In fact, many municipalities and states have anti-harassment statutes that might be utilized if a landlord presses too hard. The definition of harassment, however, is “subjective, but it usually involves repetitive annoying behavior,” Kwong said, stressing that individuals should check local laws to understand what constitutes harassment where they live.
And while many states have asked landlords to accept partial payments for right now, tenants need to keep their eye on the longer-term ramifications of partial or skipped payments, cautioned Kwong.
“Right now, there’s nothing that prevents the landlord from reporting the partial payment” to credit-reporting bureaus, she told Digital Privacy News, noting that the credit implications of financial distress related to COVID-19 is a topic of ongoing debate among policymakers and financial-service companies.
Partial or skipped payments must be caught up, Kwong said, to keep a renter in good standing with the landlord — status critical for renewing a lease.
Those who fear that virus-related financial distress might arm their landlords with reasonable cause to turn them out should research local laws regarding tenants’ rights and options, she advised, to make a strong case for renewing leases well in advance.
And, Kwong added, while landlords do need to be paid with money, they have no right to judge the source of that income.
“The most important thing to know is that you do have the right to maintain your privacy in terms of your finances,” she told Digital Privacy News. “That’s key.”
Joanne Cleaver is a writer based in Charlotte, N.C.
Image Credit: Shutterstock
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