But the cost of adding two more people to their household caused the Shehans to fall behind on their own rent.
Unlike their daughter, however, the Shehans were never threatened with eviction.
Kecia Shehan rented from a distant major corporation with apartment complexes in several states.
Her parents are renting from an empathetic landlord who isn’t trying to become “fabulously” wealthy by squeezing every possible dollar out of his tenants. Not only did their landlord allow them to pause their $525 monthly rent for two months, he paid the couple’s electric bill.
“He’s not one of the landlords who immediately hands you an eviction notice,” Jamie Shehan said. “I overextended myself for family reasons and he worked with me. He gave me an opportunity to catch up.”
This is the tale of two landlords — one merciful, the other merciless.
The way some people and companies have behaved toward those in need during the coronavirus crisis reminds me of the opening line in the Charles Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The Shehans were able to help their daughter and grandson because they had a landlord who exhibited one of the moral lessons in Dickens’s novel — the importance of compassion.
Norman Rabek, 68, has been Shehan’s landlord for about 10 years. Rabek has 38 renters living in nine single-family homes and four multifamily buildings.
Rabek is the type of landlord you want in troubled times. He has managed his rental properties for the inevitable economic downturns, recessions or once-in-a-lifetime pandemic so that he doesn’t have to rush to evict struggling tenants.
He can give grace to his tenants because he has been intentional about building a financial cushion for his business. He paid off the mortgages for his multiunit buildings and is working to pay off the others. He has three lines of credit established on the properties with mortgages.
“Part of the advantage of having been involved in this a long time is that you realize stuff happens and you better have some wiggle room,” Rabek said. “I know [landlords] who are just a clogged toilet away from bankruptcy.”
Rabek said he sets his rents below market rates to attract renters who, grateful for the lower price, will stick around and want to take good care of their rental units. He also has developed a personal relationship with his tenants, which makes them feel more comfortable coming to him when they’re in financial distress. Shehan, a former electrician, has helped out on odd jobs for Rabek, allowing the tenant to witness his landlord’s kindness.
Several renters have fallen behind because of the pandemic. Rabek has given them extra time to pay or allowed them to make partial rent payments. He isn’t charging late fees. “There’s no point in inflicting extra pain on people,” he said. “People are not able to pay the rent because they bought a new car or big-screen TV. They can’t pay the rent because their work is sporadic.”
Often when people can’t pay their rent, they don’t communicate with their landlord, reasoning there’s no point if they don’t have the money. That’s a mistake. To encourage people to come to him, Rabek said he reached out to his tenants at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. He stressed the importance of being open, and he passed along information about resources his tenants could tap.
“To renters, landlords are scary beasts,” he said. “I try to work with people.”
The Census Bureau has created a weekly survey — the Household Pulse Survey — to collect data on how households across the country are dealing with employment, housing and other issues. Clearly, the coronavirus crisis has disproportionately affected renters. The National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) has been looking at the initial findings, which found that 19.4 percent of all renters were unable to pay their rent on time or deferred their rent last month. In looking forward, more than one-third of renters have little or no confidence in their ability to make next month’s rent, the council said.
“The results show how widespread the stresses stemming from the pandemic are on American households and especially renter households,” according to the NMHC report. “Much of the data also underscore the need for a widespread federal renter assistance payment program to provide relief to affected households and help stabilize the housing and financial systems.”
Many jurisdictions have placed a moratorium on evictions, but those orders will be expiring soon. The Cares Act prohibits evictions of people living in certain federally subsidized housing. Unless Congress acts, the moratoriums will end on July 25.
House Democrats have passed a $3 trillion stimulus package, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (Heroes) Act, which would extend the eviction moratorium for another 12 months. The Heroes Act provides funding to help with rent, mortgage payments and utilities — $100 billion is slated for rental assistance for low-income renters. But the Heroes Act is stymied by the lack of Republican support.
Without more federal assistance, a wave of evictions is likely.
Rabek asked that I not characterize his efforts to assist his tenants as “too idyllic.”
“This is going to be a long, hard slog over the next months, and I don’t want to make it seem that there are, or will be, simple solutions,” he said. “For me, it’s about trying to make a distressing time less stressful for all of us to the extent that I can. And, fortunately, the goodwill that has been built up with the tenants has so far carried us forward, though I know there will be harder times for us all.”