Congress has suspended evictions in federally assisted housing during the coronavirus pandemic. Many states have also halted all evictions during the crisis. But people can face thousands of dollars in back rent payments when eviction suspensions are lifted. State lawmakers and Democratic presidential candidates have called for cancelling rent payments during the pandemic. At the same time, there is a growing movement calling for rent strikes around the country.
California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order suspending evictions throughout the state until the end of May. It also said that California renters do not have to pay rent during the crisis if they have a loss of income because their businesses closed or they have coronavirus medical expenses.
California renters are supposed to notify landlords in writing about why they cannot pay rent, and have documentation ready, such as a layoff notice, letter from their employer, or pay stubs showing reduced income. However, California renters will still have to pay the back rent once the eviction moratorium is lifted.
New York State Senator Michael Gianaris is going a step further, proposing a 90-day rent suspension throughout the state. The bill will help both residential and commercial tenants in the state. They will have 90 days of rent forgiven if they lose income or have to close their businesses because of the coronavirus. The bill also provides mortgage forgiveness for landlords.
Senator Gianaris said that rent forgiveness is a moral imperative. “Thousands, if not millions, of New Yorkers are on the financial brink. We often say many New Yorkers are just a paycheck away from poverty. The time has come where the paychecks have stopped coming. We need to take urgent and critical action now to suspend and forgive rents for people who are in need of assistance during the pandemic.”
Gianaris told Newsweek that people who have lost their employment through government action should not also lose their homes. “Let’s start from the bottom-up and protect tenants whose job was taken from them by an act of the government, and whose most pressing financial obligation for the 90-day period is paying rent. [The federal bailout] supports the big boys — airlines, banks – but we should provide help for small businesses and lower income tenants to soften the landing at the end of the crisis.”
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have both endorsed the idea of a rent freeze. Sanders supports the Gianaris proposal. He said on Twitter that, “Along with pausing mortgage payments, evictions, and utility shutoffs, we must place a moratorium on rent payments, especially in states hardest-hit by the coronavirus like New York.”
Biden addressed the rent freeze issue while speaking at a CNN Town Hall. “Freeze it and forgive it so that you’re able to stay in that place … There should be a rent freeze. No one should be evicted during this period — period.” Biden would also target his rent suspension to those making less than $75,000 a year and include small businesses.
There is a growing rent strike movement around the country. Desperate renters wonder how they can be expected to pay the rent when the government orders people to stay at home? Calls for a national rent strike during the coronavirus pandemic, like this petition on Change.org, echo the same demand. Renters want rent waived for the duration of the pandemic, with no crippling repayment of back rent once the crisis has passed.
A rent strike is different from an individual just deciding not to pay rent. It means a group of people hold back their rent payments so that they are in a better bargaining position with the landlord. A rent strike requires a lot of work organizing neighbors and coming up with a common proposal. If only a few people hold back their rent, it is easier for the landlord to take action against them.
Rent strikes do have their downsides, for both tenants and landlords. Eviction protections in many cities and states mean that rent strikers will not be thrown out of their homes. But when eviction suspensions are lifted, landlords can file for eviction against tenants who failed to pay rent. Landlords can also demand late fees for unpaid rent, and tenants can see their credit damaged.
When a building’s tenants do not pay the rent, it certainly hurts property owners. Landlords have many expenses that must be covered by rents. Mortgage payments, property taxes and insurance typically make up more than half of their costs. If landlords fail to make mortgage payments they can lose their property to lenders. If they do not pay their property taxes, they local governments can seize the property. In the end this could hurt residents.
Landlords also have other expenses that affect the quality of life for their renters. Rent payments support maintenance, property management and utilities. When landlords lose rent, one of the first things they do to save money is put off regular maintenance. Rents also pay for the property manager.
Rents also pay for heat, electricity, water, sewer and garbage collection. If landlords cannot provide these services, it directly affects the living conditions for tenants. It also means their properties will not meet building health and safety codes in most places. Owners also must make regular payments to capital reserves, which are used for large repairs like new roofs or boilers.
Small landlords would suffer greatly under widespread rent strikes. These owners tend to have smaller reserves, and are more at risk of losing their properties if they get behind on their bills. When they lose rent from a couple of units, that can be half the property’s income. Disruptions to small landlords will affect a huge number of low-income renters. Small “Mom and Pop” landlords that have 2-4 units own 74% of all rental properties in the country.
Landlords are not keen on eviction. It costs them legal fees, It costs them to clean, paint and advertise the units. It costs them lost rent for every month a unit is vacant. And it will be hard to find new tenants in places with coronavirus stay-at-home orders. Most landlords, then, would rather negotiate partial rent or repayment plans.
The coronavirus pandemic will have a huge impact on apartment owners of all sizes. The apartment industry is urging landlords to stop evictions, halt late fees and delay rent increases for the next 90 days. Many landlords, especially small owners, have taken the lead in working with their tenants.
One example of a supportive landlord is Sydney Wen, a Los Angeles landlord who owns a triplex. One of his tenants lost her job as a babysitter because her clients were sent home from work. He has supported her by negotiating a solution, and is committed to helping his other two renters if needed. He said, “I will not kick them out. I used to be on food stamps, I know their struggle.”
It does not do low-income renters any good to get rent payments waived if it drives their landlords into bankruptcy. Federal and state governments can provide landlords with relief too. Suspending mortgage payments during the pandemic would take away one of a landlord’s largest expenses. The legislation proposed in New York by Senator Gianaris addresses the burden on landlords. It not only waives rent payments for tenants, but also mortgage payments for landlords.
Halting evictions is the first step to keeping people from losing their homes. But eviction protections are not enough, especially if the pandemic goes several months or longer. Low-income renters need relief that will not cripple them financially when the crisis has passed, and landlords need support so that they can keep their buildings safe for tenants.