Q: Should I participate in a renters’ strike?
A: On Twitter #CancelRent and #CantPayMay has been trending in response to an unemployment rate caused by businesses closing in an effort to stop the spread of covid-19.
Tenant groups and community advocates have organized one nationwide strike called We Strike Together in an effort to push the federal government to provide more coronavirus-related financial aid to renters.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has endorsed the rent strikes.
“People aren’t striking because they don’t feel like paying rent, Ocasio-Cortez said in a video posted on her Facebook page. “People are striking because they can’t pay rent. They can’t. It doesn’t matter how many threatening text messages a landlord or building sends to its tenants. It doesn’t matter how much you threaten legal action. It doesn’t matter how much you intimidate anybody. People can’t pay.”
This movement is not without merit.
Covid-19 has exacerbated the affordable housing crisis. And the start of each new month brings more financial anxiety.
“Rent strikes reflect public anger over the way that the housing system is designed to benefit real estate interests over the rest of society,” said Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project. “The federal government needs to step in to help protect renters and struggling landlords by providing rent relief.”
The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found that in 2018 there were 44 million renter households. The covid-19 crisis has disproportionately affected renters, according to a recent report by Laurie Goodman, vice president at the Urban Institute and co-director of its Housing Finance Policy Center, and Dan Magder, chief executive of Center Creek Homes.
The lack of affordable housing forces renters to spend too much of their monthly income for housing — more than half of their income in high-cost areas. This leaves little room to save for a financial crisis.
“Policymakers need to address the stress that renters have from the covid-19 crisis and head off a worsening situation that could include mass evictions, deteriorating housing stock, and even a real estate or housing market crash,” Goodman and Magder wrote.
One solution would be a national rental assistance program that would provide rental vouchers to tenants or rental payments to property owners, Goodman and Magder said.
Q: So that makes a compelling case that it’s in the public interest for renters to strike. What’s the argument for the other side?
A: Not surprisingly, landlords, with their own bills and mortgages to pay, argue that rent strikes will end up hurting the economy even more. Pension funds invest in such commercial real estate as apartment complexes. Owners of large and small apartment complexes could be forced into foreclosure, reducing the inventory of rental units and ultimately putting further upward pressure on rent prices. With reduced income, landlords will start to lay off workers, such as leasing agents or maintenance crews.
“What the owner will do when he or she gets no rent is look to all the payments that have to be made on a monthly basis, their mortgage, their payroll, their taxes, their insurance, and their utilities,” said Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council. “And the first thing to go is going to be the payroll.”
Q: What’s the potential downside to me?
A: There is a risk of joining a renters’ strike. So you need to ask yourself what kind of relationship will you have with your landlord once the strike ends.
At some point, you will need to negotiate with your landlord about how to catch up on past rent. You may need a break on rental payments going forward if the spread of covid-19 doesn’t slow down enough to get people back to work.
Then there is the matter of your credit history. Your landlord may report your late payments to the credit bureaus, hindering your ability to find another rental.
And consider whom you are striking against.
“Despite headlines in recent years about large institutional investors moving into the single-family rental space, the overwhelming majority of units, 88 percent of single-family rentals, are owned by mom-and-pops or small businesses who own no more than 10 units,” according to the Urban Institute report.
Your landlord may be in as much financial distress as you.
“There are many smaller landlords who are also struggling during this time,” NHLP’s Roller said. “It’s not in the best interest of renters if the end result of this crisis is that the rental market becomes even more dominated by real estate investment trusts and large corporations.”
Change has often happened because individuals were willing to make a sacrifice even at a great financial cost to themselves. Just be sure you understand the risks and plan for the consequences of participating in a rental strike.
“Anyone engaging in a rent strike should understand the legal implications,” Roller said. “Renters and landlords are in this together. We’re going to be better off if we all are better off. We all are going to have to take a hit to make it work for everybody.”
Q: What can I do if I can’t pay my rent?
A: Workers who were laid off from full-time jobs because of the coronavirus are having the toughest time paying rent, according to ApartmentGuide.com. Fifty-three percent of these renters said it was difficult coming up with the rent for April.
Although the financial situation is bad for a lot of people, 91 percent of households living in professionally managed apartments were able to make a full or partial rent payment by April 26, according to a rent payment tracker by the National Multifamily Housing Council.
Many renters have some breathing room, at least until July.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act prohibits evictions of people living in certain federally subsidized housing. The National Housing Law Project has summarized the covered properties here.
The eviction moratorium took effect on March 27 and extends for 120 days (until July 25). Landlords covered by the Cares Act cannot send an eviction notice, file an eviction case or charge late fees through the end of the moratorium. Even after that deadline, landlords covered by the Cares Act have to give tenants 30 days to vacate before filing an eviction case for nonpayment.
“This means that those tenants all across the country will have an additional 30 days of protection from eviction,” said Kadeem Morris, a staff attorney in the housing unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
“For private tenants whose landlords do not have a federally backed mortgage, the end of their state’s eviction moratorium, if applicable, means that their landlord can start the eviction process through the courts,” Morris said. “If you can’t pay rent, reach out proactively to your landlord or property manager. Explain your situation to your landlord in writing and request an accommodation.”
If you are a subsidized housing tenant, it is very important that you contact your local housing authority or your property manager to have your rent recalculated because of your loss of income, Morris said.
This advice may seem obvious, and yet many tenants don’t let their landlord know they are in a financial bind.
“There’s still a very low percentage of residents reaching out to their landlords to request help,” NMHC’s Bibby said.
Here are some options you can propose to your landlord, Morris said.
— Ask for a rental waiver for a certain period of time. You can revisit the issue as your circumstances change.
— Propose a partial payment.
— If you have deposits on file, ask your landlord to apply that money to any missed month’s rent.
— Ask for a payment plan for your missed rent.
— Ask for a waiver of late and penalty fees if this isn’t already mandated by an eviction moratorium.
“If you come to an agreement with your landlord, be sure to get that agreement in writing and comply with that agreement,” Morris said.
Q: If I’m covered by an eviction moratorium, should I still contact my landlord? What good would that do?
A: Yes, stay in constant contact with your landlord. Even if your financial situation is the same as the previous month, let your landlord know. For example, perhaps you’ve received the $1,200 stimulus payment under the Cares Act. You might need some of that money for food, but you could make a partial payment. And here’s why you may want to do that despite the moratorium: Eventually, you will have to pay the back rent. If you can keep up with some of the rent, that’s less you have to worry about later.
Q: What can I do if my landlord is threatening to change my locks and remove all my possessions even though my city/state has a moratorium on evictions?
A: “A landlord who threatens a tenant, changes the locks, or shuts off utilities without going through the court process is doing an illegal lockout and the tenant should call the police and your local legal services provider immediately,” Morris said.
Generally, notice to vacate is required before the start of the eviction process. However, some leases waive that notice requirement, Morris said.
“It is important for tenants who think that they may be faced with a potential eviction to contact their local legal services provider and seek out assistance with their case,” he said. “Rental assistance may be available to help individuals who have fallen behind on their rent.”
Be sure you are up to date on your rights if there is a moratorium on rental evictions in your local jurisdiction or state.
The National Consumer Law Center has been compiling a list of states with eviction bans.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition has also been tracking local and state eviction bans.
Bibby said his organization has encouraged the multifamily industry to halt evictions on their own and waive late fees, avoid rent increases, create payment plans for renters, and pass along to renters information about government and community resources.
Q: What could happen to me after the moratorium on evictions is lifted?
A: “The eviction moratoriums prevent eviction filings. They do not relieve the legal burden to pay rent,” Roller said.
If you have been served with an eviction notice, contact a local nonprofit legal services organization in your area.
“The data is really strong that having an attorney dramatically increases your chance for a good outcome during an eviction procedure,” Roller said.
Above all, do not ignore the eviction notice. Show up in court and plead your case even without an attorney.
“Either you’ll be able to beat the eviction or you’ll be able to negotiate for a little bit more time,” Roller said.
Q: What should I do if I get a final court order to vacate?
A: You can hope for the best, but if the worst happens and a court orders you to vacate your rental, don’t ignore the inevitable. Start looking for alternative housing.
If you have to move, you don’t want to have a law officer show up at your door with movers who will dump all your belongings on the street, especially if you are living with children.