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Help! Can I Evict a Terrible Tenant During the Pandemic?

Slate logo Slate 3/24/2020 Danny M. Lavery
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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Q. Eviction during the coronavirus: I have a terrible tenant who has been consistently late with rent for the past two years. (He’s a friend of a friend). To top it off, he has three pets (over the limit) and seldom picks up after them. The odor is terrible, but the tenant “can’t smell anything.” The other tenants are threatening to leave.

I’ve given this person multiple opportunities to get a roommate, pick up after his pets, anything, but he is resisting adulthood. (He’s in his late 40s.) I want to end this person’s lease, but then the apocalypse happened. Am I stuck with him all summer? I am not a fat cat. I’m a scrawny kitten with only a couple rentals.

A: Familiarize yourself with your state’s tenants’ rights protections, and find out whether there are any eviction bans in place in your city. Don’t ask me whether you can end his lease; if you got permission from an advice columnist but violated state or city law in trying to evict him, that columnist’s advice would hardly stand up in a court of law.

Legality aside, if you’re asking me whether it’s the right thing to do, to evict a moderately annoying tenant in the middle of a pandemic—no, it’s not the right thing to do. He’s not presently threatening your health or your ability to keep a roof over your own head.

RELATED VIDEO: Most renters won't receive protections under HUD proposal [Provided by Yahoo!]

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Q. Picking up the slack? Due to the coronavirus, my organization has been completely overwhelmed trying to manage employee and strategic issues. The closure of day cares means that any employees with children are essentially doing two full-time jobs: watching children at home and fulfilling job responsibilities. I’m a junior employee (six months into the job) and I’m being asked to take on the huge strategic project of mapping our company’s next six months. Many other senior folks would ordinarily be driving this, but they’re taking care of their kids. I’m being asked to do substantially more work for no more pay. I recognize this is an awful time for everyone. But I’m already anxious about the pandemic and the changes to my own life. I can’t handle doing other people’s jobs. But I feel heartless for saying this—I don’t have small children running around. What’s reasonable here?

A: I’m so sorry about the impossible situation you’re all being put into right now. But you don’t have to justify the fact that you’re only one person and can’t do multiple jobs at the same time just because you don’t have kids—you’re still only one person who can’t do multiple jobs at the same time! Your colleagues with children are doing double duty, yes, but that doesn’t mean you can do double-duty for all of them. It doesn’t sound like any one person is assuming you’re just bursting with free time because you don’t have kids so much as everyone’s shifted into crisis mode and barely has time to look up. It’s absolutely fine to let people know, in the moment, “I won’t be able to take over X, as I’m already managing Y and Z on top of my other duties.” You can also speak to your boss—who I imagine is slammed too!—and ask for help weighing various priorities as you attempt to triage multiple workloads. Hopefully both your boss and colleagues will understand that a lot of things simply aren’t going to get done right now, and not ask the impossible of you. But don’t feel like you need to bring up your nonparenting status in order to justify the natural limitations of being a single person with only 24 hours in a day. You have nothing to apologize for.

Q. What’s the compromise? My wonderful wife and I have two perfect children, a boy and a girl, ages 4 and 1. It’s my ideal family size. My wife has always wanted a bigger family. (I have one sister, but she has five siblings.) We’re at the point where she is just unable to move forward without having one more child, while I feel unable to move forward with more than two. I’m currently the stay-at-home parent, and my wife has admitted to being jealous of my relationship with our kids simply due to the increased time I get to spend with them. She feels like earning the income is her only meaningful contribution to our family right now. (She does so much more!) She’s also feeling cast aside because I don’t want to live in a huge city in which her career could absolutely thrive more than it is doing so now, so I’m feeling tremendous guilt for holding her back from her two dreams (big family, big city).

We’ve been open since the beginning of our relationship about our ideal family sizes and preferences on living environment. I feel like I sacrifice a lot for her (like the timing of having the two kids we already have, staying at home so she can keep building her career, etc.), and she’s feeling like she sacrifices on bigger, more defining things (it feels to her like I don’t value her dreams and goals). Where’s the right compromise? Do I sacrifice once more and have another child? Do I stick up for myself but still obviously help her through the grieving process of not having her ideal family size? I love my wife more than anything and want to do what’s fair for both of us.

A: I’d consider what would be fair to a third, as-yet-hypothetical child, whose primary caregiving parent would think of them as yet another “sacrifice”—is that fair to them? It’s not simply a case of “Spouse X wants one thing and Spouse Y wants another thing, so let’s try to find something exactly in the middle.” You’re talking about bringing another person into the world; I’m of the opinion that that decision should, whenever possible, be pretty unanimous between all prospective parents. “You don’t ‘get’ to live in a big city because of me, so let’s have a third child I don’t really want to make up for it” does not strike me as a robust, eager, shared desire to parent another person.

If you and your wife need to revisit the question of where you live, there’s plenty of potential for compromise; if you two need to revisit the question of you returning to work at some point in the future so she can spend more time with the kids, there’s plenty of potential for compromise there too. But having a third child (which, again, you don’t want) will only make those problems more glaring. I don’t mean to downplay or dismiss your wife’s desire for another child, but you already have two “perfect,” wanted, children. She’s not being “kept” from realizing her dream—she’s engaging with the reality of living with a partner whose own decisions, desires, dreams, and autonomy have to be grappled with.

Q. Jealous of a dead woman: My boyfriend of six months lost one of his female friends two weeks ago to a terminal illness. Since then, things have completely changed between us. He is moody, gruff, sad, and he has totally locked me out both emotionally and physically. He no longer spends time with me. I don’t hear from him for days. When I do call, I can barely recognize his voice over the phone. All energy is gone. He insists they were never sexually intimate but that they were close. We haven’t had sex since she died. We haven’t done anything together. We were together once at my house, and he didn’t speak to me for most of the time, just scrolled through Facebook looking at her pictures. When he did talk, it was to tell me about her and things they did together. I am left to wonder if he was secretly in love with her but didn’t initiate a relationship because she was unavailable. I hate feeling jealous of a dead woman. But I also hate being sidelined while he grieves. What should I do? Give him time and space, or start thinking about moving on?

A: I’m so sorry for your boyfriend’s loss and for your own uncertainty as you struggle to figure out how much time and space you can reasonably expect to give him. I don’t know if your relationship will continue. I do think it’s a waste of your time and energy to try to figure out whether his grief is tinged with romantic longing. The salient fact is that he’s grieving, and this grief may or may not make it impossible for him to be meaningfully present in your relationship now. Bear in mind that it’s only been two weeks since his friend died. But it’s not an either-or situation: You can empathize with his grief and mourn with him while also acknowledging that you want to spend time with the person you’re dating. I think you can do both, at least right now. Let him know that you won’t crowd him if he doesn’t want to hear from you but you miss him and would love to spend time with him when and if he’s available. Then use that time on your own to figure out whether you think this relationship is viable if things don’t change two or four or eight weeks from now. You’re not asking him to stop grieving her; you’re asking if he can see himself grieving, at least in part, with you.

Q. I want my sons to come home to ride out COVID-19: I have twin sons who are 20. They live in a city a 12-hour drive from us and have a sweet setup. Great partners, a fabulous roommate, right above a farmer’s market, but … now COVID-19 is here and I want them home. They live in a province where the majority of the health care is in a language they don’t speak, they don’t have any money coming in, and, while we are not sure how long we will have money, we live in a rural area where we can always access fresh food, go for long walks on the beach while abiding by social distancing practices, etc. They live in a major metropolitan area. I have said both partners are absolutely welcome without question, but one is from where they live (they don’t live together) and has a support system and family there. The other one is foreign and seems quite happy to join us. I can’t cope with my sons not being at home in case something happens—not even the illness but a quarantine during which they can’t get (or afford) food, or the chance to come home being taken away, or, yes, both having no one to care for them if they get sick. One son is working on the other one but won’t leave without his brother (not that I want him to).

Am I being unreasonable? We are a very tight family, and my heart literally hurts every time I think about them being there and me not being able to get to them if something goes down. I normally give them lots of space, but this feels different.

A: I don’t think asking whether you’re being unreasonable is the right question. Your worry and anxiety make sense to me; your sons’ desire to maintain their independence even in times of crisis makes sense to me too. You can’t force them to come home, and I think you’ll find that you’ll experience diminishing returns (perhaps even active rebellion) if you try to make the case for coming to your home too strenuously or too often. They know they can come home if and when they need to. What’s most important for you, I think, is finding ways to make peace with your sons’ adulthood, nascent though it may be. It may alleviate some of your concerns if you invite them to share a safety plan with you so you can talk through their various financial/logistical/emergency options, depending on what the coming weeks and months bring. Remind them periodically, but not constantly, that they’re welcome at your home if staying in their own home becomes too difficult or impossible. But it will help, I think, to acknowledge that they do have a home of their own now—it’s not “coming home” for them, but coming to your home.

Q. My sister is pregnant again: My sister is 22 and has a 4-year-old son. The problem is, she is never in a stable relationship for more than a week and lives with my parents, who have had to take care of my nephew most of the time. Well, my sis just told me she is pregnant again with some guy she was with a few weeks ago but isn’t with now, and she asked me not to tell Mom and said she isn’t planning on telling her for a while. I know it’s her life and she has a right to privacy, but my mom also cares for her two elderly parents, and six (going on seven) people is a bit much for their house. Doesn’t my mom have a right to know because she will need to prepare as much as, if not more than, my sister? Is there a way for me to talk my sister into telling our mom politely without making her mad? I don’t want to be the one to spill.

A: No, your mother doesn’t have a “right” to know someone else is pregnant simply because they live with her. Nor does she have a “right” to know because she’s that person’s mother; your sister has the right to decide when and whether to tell other people about her pregnancy, even if you think she’s behaving irresponsibly. That doesn’t mean your mother wouldn’t like to know or that it wouldn’t make her life easier to know about this as much in advance as possible—both seem obviously and straightforwardly true. And you can certainly tell your sister (I agree that politely is the way to go here) that you think it will make her own life easier if she can tell your mother so they can start making plans, either together or separately. But all you can do is offer advice and advocate for what you think best, then let your sister make her own decisions (and, for what it’s worth, let your parents make their own, too).

Q. How to decline invitations: Over the past few years I’ve given up going to large family gatherings. Nothing crazy happened; it was just that I don’t care for quite a few people there, the gatherings always leave me feeling anxious and stressed, and my children were not being treated nicely by the other children. Last time, my child had his hand stomped on for trying to play with chalk that was out for everyone, and the parents and grandparents of the child who did it didn’t care to intervene. (These things happen frequently during these events. I feel like I need to watch all the kids there, not just my own, because no one else does so.) Plus, most of these gatherings are during the holidays, and our whole extended family of about 25 to 50 people is all crammed in a 1,500-square-foot house. There are also a few birthday parties and baby showers during the year. In the past year I haven’t attended a family event at all and people are starting to notice. For the record, I still keep in touch via Facebook. What do I say to people who are asking if I’m anti-family, and why they don’t see me and my family anymore? I usually just say I have plans (I’ll make plans), but is there a better response when you don’t care to share the same (cramped) space with a good portion of your extended family? Am I a bad person for being willing to sacrifice these relationships in exchange for never going to these events again?

A: If you’re genuinely willing to let go of these relationships (and it sounds like you are), then you can always respond honestly to a baited question like “What are you, anti-family?” That doesn’t mean I think you should say, “Yes, I hope I never see you again”—I’d suggest something more along the lines of what you told me, like “I don’t have a good time at big family gatherings, but I’m glad you enjoy them,” followed by cheerful indifference if they try to complain to you about your choice. But what this boils down to is that you’re fundamentally uninterested in spending time with your relatives and don’t really care if this means they take offense. That puts you in an enviable position of having nothing to lose.

Of course, it’s likely that crowded in-person gatherings are off the table for even your kissing kin in the immediate future, but this is a question not merely of physical but emotional proximity.

Q. Re: Picking up the slack? This young person is being given a great opportunity to prove themselves and shine. In a crisis, people need to put all hands on deck, and chances like this, done well, are terrific learning opportunities professionally and personally, and they serve as chances for advancement. Let’s not forget that side of it too.

A: Sure, but it didn’t sound to me like the letter begrudged anyone a reasonable amount of help, or was indignant at the thought of doing a few extra hours of work a week to get a particularly pressing project across the finish line. It sounds like they’re absolutely slammed as the company goes into crisis mode as the result of a pandemic. I think they’re already at “all hands on deck,” and there’s a human limit to how much individual enthusiasm can accomplish when you’re trying to do the job of eight people.

Q. Re: Jealous of a dead woman: Based on what you wrote, your whole focus is on what the woman’s death has cost you (in terms of your boyfriend’s time, energy, focus). It just comes across as so “me-oriented,” without any empathy to the fact that he lost a dear friend. Two weeks ago. When he was looking at pictures on Facebook, did you ask him to tell you about the moments that were captured? The memories they evoked? Or did you try to refocus his attention on you? Please reflect on how or whether you’re showing up as a partner right now, and if you truly care for him, either practice being there for him or leave so he can find someone else.

A: I think that’s a really useful way to reframe here. I don’t think the letter writer is totally without sympathy, but I do worry they’re going to get stuck on “Was he in love with her?” instead of finding opportunities to connect or help. You’re right that the letter writer didn’t mention much in the way of what they’ve been doing to reach out or care for their partner beyond trying to call. I think that care is the most important thing to do right now. If he totally rebuffs any and all attempts to connect and doesn’t get in touch after they give him space, then they may have to accept that the relationship is over—but they don’t have to cross that bridge before they get to it.

Danny M. Lavery: Thanks so much, everyone. Hope you’re all staying as safe and as sane as possible under the circumstances. I’ll be doing the Dear Prudence live show this Wednesday from my living room—join in if you can! Otherwise, I’ll see you next week.

Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.


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