Small landlords account for about 22.7 million units in 16.7 million properties (the United States has a total of about 48 million rental units, HUD says). I would say to them: You’ve probably found in recent weeks, as I have, that your own finances and much of what you thought was solid ground in the marketplace are being called into question. But I ask you to step outside of your own financial uncertainty and consider the powerful impact that millions of landlords could have by splitting some of the cost of this upheaval with their tenants.
Imagine how we could “flatten the curve” of the economic toll — to borrow a phrase about bringing down the infection rate over a longer time — by reducing the financial hit that millions of Americans are taking. The more we can stretch this out, the more bankruptcies, evictions and other financial disasters our tenants face might be staved off. And even if those troubles do eventually strike, spreading them further along the timeline would leave communities and the social safety net better able to help, just as the goal of flattening the pandemic curve is to avoid overwhelming hospitals with seriously ill patients all at once.
Yes, some tenants, maybe many of them, will receive relief from the emergency spending bill that President Trump signed into law last week. But those checks won’t cover every cost of the upheaval in people’s lives. Landlords, as members of our communities, have a duty to help as best we can during this emergency. We may be reluctant to reach out to tenants right now, from a natural human aversion to inviting what might be bad news about illness, unemployment or financial setbacks. Yet this is the time to get in touch with our tenants directly. If they’re hurting, and you’re able to, offer to reduce their rent by, say, 25 percent, for April, with no expectation of being paid back.
Another option: With tenants who have a track record of taking care of your property, return a portion of their security deposit and credit that toward the rent. If for April 1, or even May 1, landlords took $200 off the next rent check for those 22.7 million units, it would send more than $4.5 billion of relief back to tenants and into the economy.
If you do this, only you and a couple of people will know it. Let the action be its own reward. If upon reflection that doesn’t persuade you, then I appeal to you as a businessperson. Think through the long-term interest of the business: Vacancies and turnover costs tend to dramatically outweigh the short-term expense of a voluntary rent reduction to a valued tenant. It’s in our interest, and the interest of the people we’ve entered into agreement with, to help them continue to help us. (A gentle reminder: If you structured your business well, your tenants are helping pay the mortgage of the house you own.)
When the subject of rent forgiveness has come up on Internet real-estate forums over the past few weeks, a common landlord response has been along the lines of “the bank isn’t going to give me a break on my mortgage.” First of all, the bank may do just that. CNBC recently compiled a list of several banks with policies responding to the emergency that include offering help to mortgage-holders who ask for it. And the government has declared a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures related to mortgages backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Administration.
But even if your bank won’t give you a break on your mortgage, is that any reason for you to also behave so thoughtlessly? We may not know how these decisions will impact any of us in the long term — and as a business owner, I may experience negative consequences in future months. But we do know one thing: As landlords, we have an opportunity to be of value to our tenants and to our communities.