Over the past 30 years, Maral Boyadjian has built up a family real estate business consisting of eight homes in Southern California that she and her husband rent out.
“Some people spend their money on a bigger home or better car or travel, but we live modestly,” said Boyadjian. “Whatever money we can put together, we spend it on buying another single-family home to rent.”
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Typically, the rents from the homes enable the couple to cover all their expenses and earn income. But now tenants in three of their properties in the San Fernando Valley, haven’t paid their rent for months. The couple can’t remove those tenants because of a state eviction moratorium, which was extended until January 31.
Of the three tenants that are behind, one has arranged to pay 25% of rent now and the rest later. Boyadjian said she is happy to work with that tenant, because at least an effort is being made and she’s getting something. Others, like those who have not paid any rent since August, leave her feeling like she’s being taken advantage of.
“Owning a property and collecting rent on it is my way of making a living,” she said. “There has been no government aid coming my way. Our income has been sliced. We don’t get unemployment.”
So far, she has been able to continue to meet her financial obligations. She makes property tax payments and pays the insurance. She not only pays for utilities like water, but also for gardeners and pool maintenance.
“We’ve been able to pay our mortgages, but we’re really in danger of not being able to on two properties,” Boyadjian said. “This is not sustainable.”
Eviction moratoriums causing uncertainty
As the coronavirus pandemic drags on – with unemployment still high, government support dwindling and the status of future stimulus unknown – landlords are suffering.
An estimated 9.2 million renters who have lost income during the pandemic are behind on rent, according to an analysis of Census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And renter households with a job loss will owe an estimated average of $5,400 in back rent by this month, according to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
A national ban on evictions, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stop the spread of the virus, has meant many landlords must continue to pay to maintain and finance their properties with less rent coming in and no recourse to remove non-paying tenants.
“This is becoming a concern for landlords,” said David Howard, executive director for the National Rental Home Council, which advocates on behalf of the single-family rental industry. “With the eviction moratorium, you don’t know what the next step is. There is no certainty about when you’re going to get paid.”
If the CDC order is allowed to expire, as many as 5 million renters could face eviction across the country in January, with as many as 14 million renter households at risk of eviction, according to Stout, a global investment bank and advisory firm. But advocates for property owners doubt there will be anywhere near that many people facing homelessness.
“The stories are heartbreaking for everyone – people with medical problems or who have lost their jobs,” said Howard. “But I don’t see an eviction tsunami or an apocalypse coming. I think that message is coming from housing advocacy groups as a way to prevent any evictions.”
Still, there is an incentive to support property owners and to keep tenants in safe housing, Howard said. But finding the solution is tricky. He advocates for rental assistance in the form of direct payments to landlords or payments to tenants earmarked for rent.
Single-family homes account for half of all rental housing, he said, and the majority of those property owners are mom-and-pop landlords, many of whom may be operating on razor-thin margins, relying on rental income to cover the costs of the property and using what’s left as their income.
“The government is putting property owners in a situation where they are supposed to be the back-stop,” Howard said. “And many will say, ‘I can no longer afford to be in this business.’ “
Unable to maintain property
Peter Gray, president of Pyramid Real Estate Group in Stamford, Connecticut, is not only a property owner collecting rent on 30 of his own properties, but also a property manager who handles maintenance and rent collection for other landlords. While only a couple of his own tenants have stopped paying, some of his landlord clients are having trouble paying him.
“Usually we’re one of the last ones they stop paying,” he said. “We’re the ones collecting the rent. If they can’t pay their subcontractors, they are hurting.”
If landlords are struggling, tenants will also be affected as home maintenance slides.
“I’m seeing landlords who can’t pay for trash removal,” Gray said. “We’re getting ‘no heat’ calls. They aren’t paying real estate taxes. They aren’t paying their mortgage.”
He said one property his company manages had a plumbing problem that cost around $38,000. The owner did not pay the bill.
“We had to get an attorney involved and say we would no longer do maintenance or repairs for them,” he said. “We paid $38,000 for repairs and they’d like to owe us one?”
For the typical landlord in trouble, which he said is someone who bought their property in the last five years and is leveraged to the hilt, there are no reserves. “Despite tenant protection laws, these landlords don’t have the cash reserves, nor the equity in their building to get loans,” he said. “With the moratoriums, they’re taking hit after hit.”
Some landlords, he said, are being paid less and seeing the wear and tear on their property increase as grown children or friends double up after losing their own housing. Routine maintenance that was supposed to take place this year has in some cases been delayed or canceled because landlords just don’t have the money, said Gray.
“They can legislate the need to do timely repairs,” he said. “But for many landlords, there is no money.”
Gray said he has some non-paying tenants he is not able to evict because of the moratorium. But he’s found most of his tenants are communicating with him and making their best efforts to pay.
“It isn’t my style to take the last penny off the table,” he said. “I want my tenants to do well. I thought early in my career it may have been bad business not to be more aggressive. But it turns out it is good business to work with people.”