New Chancery lawsuit spotlights struggles for Airbnb companies in Nashville

As you’d expect, COVID-19 and the related travel restrictions have had a catastrophic impact on the travel and hospitality industry. In Nashville, rental income for once wildly-lucrative Airbnb properties evaporated in an instant.

Consider Stay Alfred, a hospitality start-up based in Spokane, Washington that had 2,500 units in 33 cities, which closed its doors in April and is now subject to a receivership action.

In Nashville (and in Memphis), Stay Alfred had a number of buildings where it controlled nearly all the units, such as the shiny 505 Tower in downtown Nashville, as well as other prime locations in both cities. By April, Stay Alfred had left those buildings entirely.

Now, it appears that Sonder USA, Inc. may be headed toward a similar fate. Sonder manages over 12,000 rental units in 28 cities, generally for short and medium term rentals. In its most recent efforts to obtain private equity, Sonder provided a valuation of $1.3 billion.

Yesterday, in Davidson County Chancery Court, a Georgia developer filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Sonder over its failure to take possession of 101 units in a residential building in Nashville’s Hillsboro Village, located at 1620 21st Avenue South.

In this deal, the Plaintiff-developer agreed to purchase the 101 units in December 2019, many of which were already rented out to long term tenants. As those existing tenants either left or were forced out, the developer would then lease those units to Sonder, which Sonder would then manage as short term rentals. Under the Lease, Sonder would pay the developer annual rent of “$2,641,387.32.”

What could go wrong in Nashville real estate in 2020, right?

Per the Complaint, in April 2020, when Sonder was scheduled to take possession of the first batch of units, Sonder immediately went into default. Sonder claimed defenses of force majeure and impossibility of performance and frustration of purpose.

When Sonder failed to take possession or pay, Plaintiff filed this action, seeking $2 million in current and future rents. This is going to be an interesting case, since the parties seemed to go into this venture, jointly, in December. If so, then why does all of the risk shift to the lessor-defendant? Does the nature of the business relationship mean that Plaintiff and Defendant both should bear the risks?

I live in Hillsboro Village, so this one is a bit personal for me. This is my neighborhood, which is a bustling area of families, Vanderbilt workers (school and hospital), and college kids. It’s a residential community, not a vacation or party destination.

Housing is scarce. And getting more and more expensive.

As somebody who has lived in this neighborhood for over ten years, it’s irritating that these out-of-town companies created a business model to convert limited, scarce housing assets into STR properties by forcing residents out of their leases and out of the building.

Think about if you’re a grad student or doctor at Vandy, and you love your apartment. It’s right there next to your school/work, next to Luke Bryan’s steakhouse (which really is delightful), and next to Dragon Park. Sounds great, right? But, when you get to month 10-11 of your lease, you get a notice from the new owner that they want you out; the entire building is converting to vacation rentals.

I’m sure the developer would say that the “market dictates the highest and best use of property.” Let’s hope our new economy sends its own message to these opportunistic developers who want to convert our residential space into a hotel / vacation rentals. One that our local government is clearly afraid to send.

Maybe an empty building where all the long term tenants were forced out will send that message.

For what it’s worth, that message may have been received. As of the time of this posting, a great number of the units in Village 21 are now available for long term leases.

Detainer Warrants: When can I get them Out?

Tennessee’s General Sessions Courts provide the fastest justice in the state. There, a plaintiff can file a lawsuit and, potentially, have a judgment in as early as 2-3 weeks.

No plaintiffs, however, are as eager to get to court than landlords. A common question I get is: What is the quickest court date a landlord can get?

The answer is in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-18-117, which provides: “The officer serving the warrant shall notify the defendant of the time and place of trial, the time not to be less than six (6) days from the date of service.”

So, in order to have a valid eviction lawsuit, you have to provide–at a minimum–six days notice from the date of service of process.

Note:  This timeline is for commercial property evictions. Residential evictions are governed by the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act , and that is it’s own blog post.

 

 

Tennessee Detainer Actions: Not Just for Tenants and Landlords

What if you own real property, but someone else has possession of the property, and you want them gone? You evict them. But, as you’ll see under Tennessee statutes, they don’t call it an “eviction” lawsuit; they call it a “detainer” lawsuit.

The statute in Tennessee is Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-18-104, titled “Unlawful Detainer.” That statute provides:

Unlawful detainer is where the defendant enters by contract, either as tenant or as assignee of a tenant, or as personal representative of a tenant, or as subtenant, or by collusion with a tenant, and, in either case, willfully and without force, holds over the possession from the landlord, or the assignee of the remainder or reversion.”

These detainer actions are generally brought in general sessions court, where, as I’ve noted before, you can exceed the $25,000 jurisdictional limit. Also, even though general sessions appeals are very easy on most matters, they are complicated and expensive in general sessions court.

So, if you’re a landlord, you’re probably reading that statute and thinking it’s exactly what you need, right? But, what about if you’ve purchased the property, either by a typical sale or a foreclosure? In that case, you’re not a landlord, and the defendant isn’t entering by contract (i.e. lease). Does a different statute apply?

No, said the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Federal National Mortgage Association v. Danny O. Daniels, W2015-00999-COA-R3-CV (Dec. 21, 2015).  There, the Court noted that the Deed of Trust will create “a landlord/tenant relationship … between the foreclosure sale purchaser and the mortgagor in possession of the property,” and, as a result, “constructive possession is conferred on the foreclosure sale purchaser upon the passing of title; that constructive possession provides the basis for maintaining the unlawful detainer.”

In such a case, a plaintiff must prove: (1) its constructive possession of the property (i.e. ownership of the property); and (2) its loss of possession by the other party’s act of unlawful detainer.

In short, the detainer statutes in Tennessee aren’t well crafted. Sometimes they reference landlords and tenants; sometimes they don’t. Courts have a tendency to construe statutes as written and to assume that the legislature means what it says when it uses specific words. That’s bad news for the foreclosure sale purchaser, who isn’t a landlord and who isn’t dealing with a tenant.

Here, however, it’s clear that the legislature should have proofread the statutes a few more times. Fortunately, Tennessee courts have applied the statutes in a broader sense.

 

There’s a 15 Day Limit to Continuances in Tennessee Detainer Actions

Landlording is a hard business. If you don’t think so, wait until the first time you have to sue your tenant to evict them.

In Tennessee, the process is done by a “detainer” warrant, and it’s a full blown court proceeding, which is generally done in General Sessions Court.

In these proceedings, the landlord wants the proceeding resolved as soon as possible, while the tenant wants to stretch out the proceeding as long as possible. Who doesn’t like to live rent free, right?

Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-18-118 provides some protection for landlords. That statute allows the judge to continue a matter, but only to a time not exceeding 15 days.

The only exception the statute provides that would allow for a longer period of time is: (1) if the parties agree to a longer time; (2) the 15 days ends at a time when there’s no court; or (3) the party asking for the continuance pays “the costs.” (Here, the costs means they pay, at the time of the request, the rent due for that period, plus any other amounts due/incurred during that period.)

So, the tenant might get a delay–note that the statute isn’t absolute, it says “may”–but there’s an absolute limit to the delay. No Tennessee case–published or unpublished–provides any exception that allows for a longer continuance to this statute.

Your Next Landlord Could be A Hedgefund: Are Rental Properties Making a Comeback as a Good Investment?

I’ve said for years that the contractors and investors who got burned by the economic downturn will eventually hit rock bottom, dust themselves off, and end up making as much money on the backside of the recession as they lost on the front end. This is because the same market inefficiencies that were exploited in the past are being replaced by equally exploitable new ones.

The builders who once built speculative homes on inflated market appraisals are going to be the contractors who do the work for the investors who buy the properties from the banks at 40 cents on the dollar.

The Las Vegas Sun did a story last week on how hedge funds are buying Las Vegas real properties at bargain rates, making minimal investments/improvements, and renting the properties for an 8% to 12% annual return.  Then, once the economy rebounds, the investors could expect appreciation to add more value to the investment.

As far as investments go, being a landlord is fairly labor-intensive. And, if the past 4 years has shown us anything, it’s hardly a fool-proof move.

Potential landlords would be smart to read this excellent article in the Wall Street Journal, Do You Really Want to be Landlord? The article has both horror stories and advice, as well as a forecast that rents are likely to increase over the next few years.

I got out of the landlord business two years ago, when my tenant couldn’t unclog her drains and called me every other day.  The 30 minute drive, coupled with time spent waiting on plumbers, gave me all the time to reconsider the pros and cons.

 

Speaking at Landlord-Tenant Law Seminar on April 28, 2011

On April 28, 2011, I’ll be speaking at the 8th Annual Landlord-Tenant Law-With a View from the Bench on Litigation Seminar in Nashville, presented by Sterling Education Services.

I’ll be teaching the afternoon session, on topics covering Collections, Enforcement of Judgment, Dealing with Tenant Bankruptcy, and Legal Ethics in Landlord-Tenant law.

Here’s the full agenda. This seminar gets lawyers continuing legal education credits, but it’s also designed for rental agents, landlords, and other non-lawyers who want to learn the legal process.