Six months since lockdown: How specialist property support helped landlords and tenants through toughest times

David Garness, managing director of Hull-based Garness Jones

Six months have now passed since Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered England into full lockdown in the wake of Covid-19 – forcing millions of businesses to close their doors and stop trading, resulting in the country spiraling into a deep recession.

Following that unprecedented move, like many others, Hull-based property specialists Garness Jones were badly affected. The firm’s major income stream from its handling of marketing, sales and lettings of commercial property ground to an almost complete halt.

Yet Garness Jones could not simply furlough all staff and wait for the market to pick back up. Its expertise and knowledge was needed by thousands of commercial and residential landlords and tenants across the region.

Those clients had found themselves facing an unprecedented situation and were in need of specialist, support and guidance. Businesses needed help to ensure they survived. Landlords and tenants needed clarity and advice on their financial position.

“We were facing huge uncertainty ourselves as, in terms of income, our major source of work and the most lucrative area of our business stalled. They were worrying times for us, but we knew that our expertise was going to be in demand and that we had to be there for others,” recalled managing director David Garness.

A decision was taken that, despite the financial pressures falling upon the business – and the uncertainty with regards to when any sense of normality would resume – all senior managers would continue to work full-time remotely, with reduced staff numbers across various teams.

Weekly management meetings (via video call) were held every Monday morning to discuss new arising challenges and how the team could best support its clients and others.

“We took an immediate decision that we needed to support businesses, landlords and tenants through the difficult days ahead, even if that meant some further financial loss to ourselves which could have been avoided through furloughing more staff,” added Mr Garness.

“We have been very successful for more than 20 years due to the support we’d had from businesses across this region. It was only right that we do our best throughout this unprecedented situation to help others through at this time.

“It was the right decision to remain fully operational as, within a couple of weeks of lockdown, our property management team were busier than ever.”

Property specialists became ‘brokers’ between landlords and tenants

The Garness Jones team essentially found themselves acting flat out as brokers and go-betweens to help negotiate and find a middle ground between landlords and tenants.

They provided advice on the many new Government business support packages, advising both landlords and tenants on where they stood legally over tenancy agreements and payments.

“Our approach was to deal with each and every case individually, understand the circumstances for both sides and adopt a common sense approach. To this day we have had only a handful of situations where a resolution has been difficult to find,” Mr Garness added.

“Our team touched base with hundreds of commercial landlords and tenants throughout the pandemic, keeping them abreast of government schemes, grants and loans that became available. Landlords had to change their approach towards their tenants to collect rent, as they didn’t know their financial situation and weren’t sure what they’d be met with.

“One example was a large, well-known local business which was forced to shut its doors and cease trading with immediate effect. It had no money coming in and significant overheads. Thankfully we were able to negotiate a position where the tenant was no longer paying a quarter’s rent up front, but doing so monthly. That gave the business the time it so badly needed to survive through lockdown and emerge in good health.”

The success was replicated in the firm’s residential lettings operations, which manages more than 2,000 residential properties on behalf of landlords.

Despite all the pressures placed upon both landlords and tenants, the team ensured there was not a single case where relations broke down, in direct contrast to a national picture of disputes and threatened evictions.

MD proud to have been ‘on the front foot’ throughout Covid-19 response

Mr Garness says he is proud at how the firm helped many businesses stay ‘on the front foot’ through lockdown, even completing property transactions during days where it was difficult to conduct site viewings.

“We tried to ensure we never lost sight of the economic need through lockdown,” he says.

“There is always a need for businesses to continue operating, to plan and to grow, and to be able to come through difficult situations in a strong enough position to create employment.

“From the start we saw the Covid-19 response as a collective matter for businesses and people across the region, and we feel we’ve helped many to be in their strongest possible position right now.

“Of course, businesses and individuals are far from through the woods. There are new challenges to be faced with the ending of the furlough scheme, and of course with the Government’s ban on landlords evicting tenants who are unable to pay their rents coming to an end.

“Our approach will be the same as it has from March 23rd onwards. We’ll listen, support, provide advice and seek to find solutions together. That has to be the way.”