April 1 has loomed as a turning point in the coronavirus economic fallout for the country’s more than 40 million renters and 30 million small business owners. With millions laid off due to the pandemic, some are pulling money from their savings accounts, borrowing money from friends to pay rent or attempting to negotiate deals with their landlords.
Even some large retailers are balking at paying their April rent. The Cheesecake Factory has said it won’t be paying April’s rent for its nearly 300 restaurants across the country due to the coronavirus. Wendy’s is deferring rent payment on properties it leases to franchisees by 50 percent over the next 90 days.
The Washington Post interviewed small business owners and laid-off workers across the country about how they’re dealing with the economic challenge of paying rent with little to no income. Whether they’re renting commercial property to run a restaurant or a one-bedroom apartment to live in, renters said the options offered by their landlords were limited and could leave them in worse financial condition later.
Meanwhile, landlords cautioned that tenants’ widespread refusal to pay rent could trigger some landlords to default on their loans and lead to a repeat of the 2008 collapse of the housing market.
Several tenants who spoke to The Post say they have received threatening notes from landlords to pay their full rent on time or else face legal proceedings. Others were given an option to delay their April rent, but they still have to pay the full amount later this year, which merely prolongs or delays the anxiety since they don’t know when businesses will reopen or whether they will still have a job.
Frustrated, some renters have resorted to staging and organizing rent strikes. On Wednesday, tenant rights groups held a training call for people organizing rent strikes in New York. Strikes have also popped up in Chicago and San Diego.
Unemployed workers struggling to get by before coronavirus shouldn’t be forced into debt now that the pandemic has nearly shuttered the economy, James said.
“It’s not fair — everything is shut down, you can’t work. Our mayor says, ‘Stay home, don’t go outside,’ but we’re expected to pay the cost of subsidizing” landlords, James said. “If we’re really in this disaster, everything should be frozen.”
While some help is on the way after the federal government passed a $2 trillion aid package known as the CARES Act, in some cases the money isn’t getting out fast enough. Some people say they can’t even apply for unemployment benefits because state websites keep crashing and phone lines are swamped.
The other key form of relief, $1,200 checks to people earning under $75,000, won’t start rolling out until April 17 at the earliest. Millions of Americans will probably have to wait longer, since the IRS does not have their banking information on file.
“Amazing that our central bank can get dollars to every financial corner of this earth, and our government cannot cut the unemployed a check,” said Sam Bell, founder of Employ America, which advocates for policies to help workers.
More than a dozen states, including Alaska, Michigan and Kentucky, have halted evictions, according to the National Consumer Law Center. Both Maryland and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia, have banned evictions at least through the end of April, but renters will still have to pay their bills when the bans are lifted, and they may have to pay additional fees.
Landlords have been sending out notices ranging from polite to threatening.
“We understand we are currently living a reality of financial uncertainty and we sincerely empathize with your concerns,” wrote one Alexandria, Va., landlord from the west end of town.
A Takoma Park, Md., property manager took a less empathetic tone: “Understand that rent is due and if not paid in the normal time frame, we will file on you in a court of law for non-payment of rent.”
John Colone, who was laid off from his job as a server at Pizza Hut in Elkton, Md., was walking to the post office Wednesday to see whether he’s received a response to his unemployment application. Colone said his landlord is demanding the rent, and if it’s not paid in the next few days, the landlord is threatening eviction.
“It’s been 17 days since I applied,” he said, over the sound of traffic. His fiancee, who shares his $700-per-month apartment, was just laid off as a retail store cashier as well
“What am I going to do? It’s fight or flight, I guess,” he said. “I got family in Philadelphia, but you don’t want to put that burden on anyone else. We’ll be living out of her car, I guess, but we’re scared. It’s desperate times. But I’m praying for everybody every night, and I’ve got to think God will protect me. I hope so.”
Melissa Terry, who has lived in her Seattle apartment since 2008, lost her job as a nanny for several families as the coronavirus spread across the country. “I can’t be going from house to house,” she said.
The landlord has offered residents who couldn’t pay April rent a repayment program, but that would push Terry, who owes thousands in student loans, further into debt. “I have three kids, I am a single mom. I will be lucky to have good food. I am just not going to have money for rent in a few months,” she said.
Instead, on Saturday, Terry sent her landlord a form letter recommended by a friend for people participating in rent strikes. She would pay 25 percent of her nearly $1,200-a-month rent until the end of the pandemic, with the remaining 75 percent of the amount forgiven. On Wednesday, she sent in $1 instead of her entire rent payment and said she would submit the rest of the lower amount if the landlord and building owner agreed.
“I don’t have a lot to lose” by participating in the rent strike, she said.
Some renters are now calling for a financial bailout, arguing that many of them have suffered a financial shock just as devastating as the one facing airlines and other industries that stand to collect billions in loans and bailouts from taxpayers.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has proposed spending $100 billion to cover rent and utility bills for millions of Americans. New York state Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Queens) introduced legislation that would forgive three months of rent and mortgage payments for people and small businesses affected by the coronavirus.
“People don’t have income by the order of the government. These jobs vanished when we shut down the economy,” Gianaris said.
Industry groups representing landlords are also calling for renters, and themselves, to be rescued with another economic stimulus bill. The National Rental Home Council, which represents landlords of single-family homes, estimates it would cost $9 billion to $10 billion a month to offset the cost of tenants who can’t afford their rent because of the coronavirus.
The alternative is a housing crisis that would rival the collapse that nearly brought down the economy a decade ago, industry officials say. Most landlords operate within thin margins and take out loans to finance their properties, said David Howard, executive director of the National Rental Home Council.
“The assumption that landlords are going to be able to absorb an extended break in monthly rent is very much mistaken and could lead to a different problem,” said Howard.
Landlords have been encouraged to be flexible with their payments, waive late fees and delay rent increases, said Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, or NMHC. “We’re trying to strike a balance out there, we are all paddling our boats in uncharted waters,” he said.
But the industry is concerned some renters won’t pay even if they can afford it, crippling landlords who still must pay taxes, insurance and staff to maintain their properties. “They have a ton of obligations themselves; this can’t be a rent holiday. . . . Taxing authorities are still asking for their money,” Bibby said.
Several renters say they their landlords are offering modest short-term help but not the long-term assistance they need.
Angelia MacNeil moved into a two-bedroom home outside Atlanta in early March with her husband and 13-year-old son. Within a few weeks, the $1,250-a-month rent became unaffordable after her husband was laid off and her tips as a waitress at a Waffle House began to dry up.
The property manager said MacNeil could pay a portion of her April rent and then repay the rest over several months. But MacNeil says her family was already living month-to-month before the coronavirus and she is skittish about agreeing to make even higher monthly payments before knowing when her family would be financially stable again.
“I would rather not risk it,” MacNeil said of a rent strike. “I would rather have something in writing” with the landlord.
Winnette Ambrose laid off 25 of her 30 workers at Souk Bakery and is limiting another restaurant, Sweet Lobby in the District’s Eastern Market development, to just takeout. It is not enough to keep them afloat, Ambrose said. “And in the back of your mind is the question of the risk you are putting your staff and clients in harm’s way.”
Her landlord gave her two options: She can pay all the rent due by December, or she can skip paying rent in April and May if she agrees to pay higher rent all summer. Neither route looks appealing. She would need customers to come roaring back this summer, including many coffee shops around the District that normally buy her goods wholesale.
“What we need is 100 percent abatement while we are closed,” Ambrose said. “We won’t all be flush with cash when we open again.”
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