Trent Gardner worked as a bartender at Treasure Island Resort and Casino in Las Vegas for ten years until he was furloughed in March. He used savings to pay April’s rent. But even though he’s now on unemployment and received some stimulus money, he won’t be able to pay his $1,500 May rent, and still provide necessities for his 16-year-old daughter and himself.
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“I’ve never been late on a rent payment,” he said. “This is a new situation for a lot of us.”
When he asked his landlord about rent relief last month, the company said tenants could defer payments for 90 days, but stipulated the full back rent would be due at the end of the lease. With his lease up in June, Gardner decided he couldn’t risk having to come up with several months of payments all at once, especially with his financial future so uncertain.
“Everything will change, but I don’t know how,” he said. “I can’t even answer for myself whether my job will come back. How can you say where you are going to be if you don’t know what you have coming in?”
Across the country, tenant advocates and housing lawyers are sounding alarms that an increasing number of renters will not be able to pay rent on May 1st. What’s more, they are concerned many renters will lose their homes as suspensions on evictions phase out and rent relief is not widely available.
If you can’t pay your rent, this is what you should do.
Know the tenant protections where you live
The best protection for renters right now are the eviction moratoriums. But coverage is patchy, varying by state, county and city.
Knowing the status of evictions where you live helps you know your rights and protections.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act includes a 120-day moratorium on evictions and late fees for properties that are secured by a government-backed mortgage. Many states also have temporary eviction moratoriums in place. The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides coronavirus-related updates on housing relief from each state, and Nolo, a legal services website, keeps track of coronavirus-related tenant protections.
“You can only make decisions if you have this information: Can evictions happen now where you are? If not, when will they open up again?” said Rachel Garland, managing attorney for the Housing Unit at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.
This can help you in asserting your rights.
“We’re seeing illegal lockouts,” said Michael Trujillo, housing staff attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley in San Jose, California. “There are landlords threatening to evict the tenants without going through the judicial processes, even after those tenants have explained their Covid-related financial struggles and an eviction moratorium.”
If this happens to you, he said, seek legal aid.
Talk with your landlord and document your requests
For the majority of people who are not being hassled by a landlord, start a conversation about your inability to pay.
“Talk to your landlord and explain what you can and can’t do,” said Garland. ‘What is your goal? If you want to stay, tell your landlord, ‘I am committed to making this work, I don’t know how, but I am going to try.’ You may want to leave. Decide on a mutually agreed upon departure plan.”
Your landlord may accept partial payment or allow for you to defer your rent for a time. But just keep in mind: A deferral or reduction in rent is not rent forgiveness and you will need to be clear with your landlord about when the back rent will be due.
Landlords don’t have to let you defer payments, said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, director and counsel of Tzedek DC, an independent public interest center at the University of the District of Columbia. “But many understand that something is better than nothing and will accept an offer to defer, delay or reduce a payment.”
Document your requests, advocates say, and be wary of a landlord pressuring you to sign a payment agreement.
“It is smart to reach out to landlords,” said Trujillo. “But I hope that tenants don’t feel pressured to sign anything they don’t think they can uphold.”
If you are covered by an eviction moratorium, make sure you do what is required to be protected by it. This may vary but may involve collecting documentation of your coronavirus-related hardship, like a notice of a furlough or layoff, and a copy of the notification of your inability to pay that you provided your landlord.
“If a family has lost all their income because of a job loss as a result of Covid-19, that family shouldn’t be making a choice between paying rent or paying for food,” said Trujillo. “They should let their landlord know they aren’t paying rent and provide documentation to be protected from eviction. They can use their money on other basic necessities.”
Connect with relief resources and other tenants
There may be rent relief resources available locally.
For example, the Dallas City Council approved a total of $13.7 million in relief to help pay rent, mortgages and utilities for residents who are unemployed or furloughed because of the coronavirus. Eligible households could get up to $1,500 for a maximum of three months.
If you are a tenant in subsidized housing who is experiencing hardship because of coronavirus, Hazel Remesch, a supervising attorney at Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, Ohio, recommends going back to the agency administering your program and notifying them that your income has changed.
“If you report it, the agency can adjust your rent.” she said.
Connecting with other tenants through associations in your building or larger networks can be empowering, said Trujillo.
“That can be really helpful for information sharing and to find out about available resources,” he said. “In a larger building, tenants have much more power when they are bargaining as an organized body.”
Generally, securing payment relief is on the tenant and is not likely to become available unless you ask.
“Know that you’re not alone,” said Levinson-Waldman. “Sometimes people experience real shame. But there is nothing to be ashamed about here. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”