Commercial Leases and the Impact of COVID-19

INTRODUCTION

 

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to affect the day-to-day lives of millions of Canadians. As a result, businesses continue to face issues regarding cash flow, which in turn forces those businesses into difficult decisions as to which obligations they will pay, and which obligations will need to be deferred.

One of the consequences of these difficult decisions is that commercial landlords are now faced with tenants who either cannot pay their rent, do not wish to pay rent or have abandoned or are contemplating the abandonment of leased property. While COVID-19 gives rise to new business considerations, as will be seen below, the rights of the commercial landlord remain relatively unchanged.

Your Tenant Cannot (or Will Not) Pay Rent

 

As was the case before COVID-19, where a tenant fails to pay rent in a timely fashion the landlord is able to demand the rent and as permitted under the lease, takes steps to distrain or evict the tenant and take possession of the property. The Saskatchewan Legislature has, at this time, not taken any steps to alter the rights and remedies of the commercial landlord.

Before concluding that the tenant is offside their obligations by way of non-payment of rent, consideration should be given to whether the lease has a force majeure clause and if so, what effect that clause may have on the tenant’s position. For more information on this subject, Marinko Jelovic has prepared an article, Force Majeure and the Doctrine of Frustration – COVID-19, which addresses this issue with more specificity. https://www.rslaw.com/2020/03/18/force-majeure-doctrine-of-frustration-covid-19/

Before deciding on a course of action, a landlord may wish to give consideration to their existing relationship with the tenant and the current economic climate. A tenant who has occupied the same property for an extended period of time or is in the midst of a long-term lease, and who has not voluntarily defaulted on payment may still be better than the alternative. When the time arises for the preventative restrictions imposed by the Government of Saskatchewan to be lifted, prospective new tenants may be a rare commodity. If you consider the business foundation for a long-term tenant to be sound you may prefer having your existing tenant when business resumes, rather looking for a new occupant. Short term pain may be balanced by long term gain.

On the other hand, if the tenant is in default and the history of the landlord-tenant relationship is not happy one, this may be an opportunity to end the relationship, with a view to attracting a more desirable tenant.

Much will turn on the landlord’s view of the value of its relationship with the tenant.

Your Tenant Abandons Their Lease

 

In Saskatchewan the legislature has declined to, at this time, amend or enact new legislation that would affect a commercial landlord’s rights. As such, the provisions of The Landlord and Tenant Act continue to apply, as do the provisions of the lease itself.

Under The Landlord and Tenant Act, if the tenant abandons their lease leaving rent unpaid a landlord may exercise its right of distress. In doing so, the landlord is permitted to retain and sell personal property left on the premises by the tenant. However, given the current economic climate a landlord may wish to consider whether or not exercising their right of distress makes financial sense.

While The Landlord and Tenant Act permits the landlord to recover the costs of the seizure and sale of abandoned or seized property, the practical reality is that the property may not be worth the cost and effort of sale. Much will turn on the nature of the tenant’s business and the type of property present in the leased space. As businesses continue to attempt to cut down and reduce overhead costs, depending on the nature of the tenant’s business there may be a reduced, or non-existent, resale market for the goods due to COVID-19. Attempting to seize and sell the property may result in substantial costs being incurred, with little net recovery, if any, toward the unpaid rent.

However, if the decision is to move to terminate, or to accept abandonment, the landlord can proceed in the usual way. The landlord’s rights are largely governed by the lease. Most provide that the landlord may bring action to recover unpaid rent, as well as rent for the remainder of the term of the lease, should a tenant abandon its lease (subject of course to the duty to mitigate and find a new tenant as soon as reasonably possible, though depending on the short and mid-term commercial leasing market it may be of little moment). For more information on the subject, please see the following article on enforcing the landlord’s rights: https://www.rslaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/1226000394Enforcement-of-Commercial-Leases-A-Practical-Guide.pdf

Conclusion

 

As the consequences of COVID-19 continue to be felt in the business community, and with no timeline as to when the government imposed restrictions will be softened or lifted, landlords will continue to face business decisions on how to deal with tenants who do not pay their rent. Consideration must be given to the risk of evicting a tenant and attempting to recover unpaid rent versus the cost and time spent attracting a new tenant. Landlords will know that when the Government of Saskatchewan lifts social distancing restrictions, it may still be several months before new tenants can be found, as the economy slowly recovers from the economic downturn. As such, maintaining strong business relationships during this pandemic may best serve to provide a practical benefit down the road. Where the relationship is not so strong, different considerations may apply, and ending the landlord-tenant relationship may be the best outcome.

For more information, please contact:

 

M Kim Anderson, Q.C.

306.933.1344

Email: mk.anderson@rslaw.com

 

Travis K. Kusch

306.933.1373

Email: t.kusch@rslaw.com

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