- Housing is the top monthly expense for nearly every renter
- The COVID-19 crisis has put millions of Americans in danger of not being able to afford their rent
- If you can’t afford to pay your rent on time, there are a number of options and solutions available
For the 36 percent of Americans that are renters, the virtual national business shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis is hitting hard.
With an estimated 10 to 20 million people out of work, innumerable citizens are or will soon be struggling to pay their rent on the first or 15th of the month.
Housing is the No. 1 monthly expense for most people. So, amid the spread of this novel coronavirus, rent payments may be difficult to come by.
If you're having trouble paying your rent — or fear you soon will be — you can follow these steps to meet your lease obligations.
Communicate with your landlord if you can't pay your rent
For many, even the combination of unemployment compensation and government assistance isn't enough to cover the rent along with other bills. The best plan is to discuss your situation with your landlord or property manager and come to an agreement together. And regardless of what you need or the solution you may be able to come to with them, the first step is to be honest, open and upfront with them.
And your best course of action is to get ahead of the problem. Don't wait until your rent is due to spring your need for help. Give your landlord or property manager as much notice as you can, which gives them more time to put a plan into place and also shows your willingness to follow any agreement and that you're acting in good faith.
Of course, if possible, do all this by email or phone. Don't make an unnecessary trip to the property manager's office if you can avoid it, for your safety and theirs. Chances are, they are working remotely anyway.
Ask if you can restructure your payments
The most feasible arrangement to offer your property manager is a reasonable payment plan. Present them directly with a plan based on your current needs and limitations.
- Show your need by providing documentation or proof of the severity of your financial situation. The more you have the better, whether it's a memo from your employer indicating the length of your layoff or a copy of your unemployment compensation application. Don't be ashamed of needing help. Millions of Americans are in the same exact situation as you are right now.
- Let your landlord or property manager know how much you can reasonably pay now and how much you'll be able to pay over the next month or two. Unless you're in dire straits, you should offer to pay at least some of your rent. If you offer something, they're more likely to agree to your plan.
- Give them a specific date when you'll be paying back the remainder, along with full payment of that month. Stick to that date. If you can't, discuss an extension with your landlord as early as you can.
- Provide all of this in writing, signed and awaiting their countersignature. Make it as easy for them as possible.
- Assure them that this is only temporary until the crisis is over and that you do not anticipate this happening again.
There's a chance the landlord will request a late fee to be paid at the time of settlement. Feel free to ask that it be waived if you're a good resident who has previously always paid on time. Your landlord might also present a counteroffer.
Know before you go in exactly how much you can afford and be clear about your limits. And if they're not open to rent restructuring, ask them what solutions they may be willing to offer. All apartment communities will be handling this situation in a slightly different way, so don't assume that this your only option or demand that your property manager accommodate you.
Have empathy for your landlord
We might think of our landlords as giant corporations getting rich off of our rents. But the truth is, almost half of rental properties are individually owned, mom and pop landlords and people just like us investing in real estate.
They're also under stress from the coronavirus crisis with property taxes, insurance and mortgages coming due, repairs and upkeep to make and property managers and maintenance staff salaries to pay, with rent their only source of income. Even large rental companies will feel the pinch as they have difficulty covering expenses, utilities and mortgages.
Most landlords want to help you in this time of need, but they aren't immune to the economy themselves. Be kind, have empathy and be patient with your landlord or property manager. Absolutely avoid making demands because you are asking them for help.
And don't take advantage of the situation. If you can afford your rent, keep paying it. That will only lead to them being able to assist other tenants and staff.
What if your landlord can't or won't help?
If your landlord is not willing or not able to help restructure your payments or offer any rent relief, you do have some other options.
1. Apply for rental assistance
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's website offers links to a number of helpful resources for rental assistance, such as state or local financial assistance programs.
As well, the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities may also be sources of rental support. You can also contact the United Way by dialing 2-1-1 to be connected to local organizations that may be able to help.
And if you or anyone in your household is a veteran, HUD and the U.S. Veterans Administration has programs that can help with rent.
2. Take out a loan
If you have solid credit and can prove that despite the current crisis you're a trusted recipient, you can turn to your bank and apply for a short-term loan. Banks will take into account your financial history and may be willing to loan you enough money to take care of rent and expenses.
Do you own a small business? Then you can apply for a Small Business Administration Disaster Loan. These loans are not only available for you to help keep your business afloat or pay employees but to keep your home and bills paid, as well. And through the Paycheck Protection Program portion of the federal government's stimulus package, additional types of businesses can qualify for small business loans.
3. Take advantage of the CARES Act
The CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed last month, is offering a cash payment to most every American. The majority of those individuals making under $75,000 (or $112,500 as head of household) will receive a stimulus check of $1,200, plus an additional $500 per household with a dependent (a bit less for those making up to $99,000 individually or $146,000 as head of household). These payments have already started appearing in some bank accounts.
And for Americans who have lost their job due to the coronavirus crisis, the CARES Act is also providing an additional $600 a week for those receiving unemployment compensation through their state during the shutdown, on top of their regular payment, for up to 39 weeks.
Some states are also offering even more assistance to their citizens who lease. For example, Delaware is providing a payment of up to $1,500 for renters who have lost their income. Be sure to check if your state or city is offering similar programs.
The federal and state governments are encouraging Americans to use this stimulus money to help pay bills, including rent.
What shouldn't you do?
It's understandable that desperate times call for desperate measures. And for many people, this may be their first time in this sort of situation. Even if you can't figure out other options, don't put yourself in a situation where you kick the can down the road that will only make things worse.
- Don't send your landlord a check you know will bounce. You won't accomplish anything but angering your landlord and possibly setting yourself up for future eviction. And worse, you'll still owe the money.
- Don't just ignore the problem in hopes that it will go away. No one knows how this crisis will play out and the last thing you want to do is have unpaid bills and no recourse for how to resolve them. Your rent isn't going anywhere, even if you ignore it.
- Avoid turning to payday lenders and car title loan companies to find quick cash. In the end, you'll be paying much more in the long run and putting yourself at risk of damaging your credit.
- We've mentioned this a few times already, but don't demand that your landlord or property manager needs to help you. They do want to work with you, but they aren't going to let you live rent-free.
- Lastly, and hopefully it goes without saying, absolutely don't skip out on your rent. If you need assistance, speak up sooner than later.
Are you going to be evicted if you can't pay?
If you can't pay your rent on time due to income loss related to the coronavirus shutdown, are you in danger of being evicted? Most likely, no.
The CARES Act includes a freeze on evictions of tenants for non-payment in buildings financed by federally-backed mortgages (like those subsidized by Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and HUD). However, this protection only applies to about a quarter of all renters, with the rest funded by banks and private lenders.
For those not covered in the stimulus, most states and a number of individual municipalities have issued their own stays of eviction, many in place between one and three months. Keep in mind, a few locales do require some type of proof you have suffered a loss of income due to the shutdown.
But just because your city or state has passed a moratorium on eviction doesn't mean all landlords are aware of the new rules. If your landlord does attempt an eviction and you believe you're protected, check with the local sheriff, who in most cities is the one that carries out evictions and knows the temporary restrictions.
Eventually, you have to pay
Be aware: Just because you're a beneficiary of an eviction moratorium, doesn't mean you never have to pay. These provisions are deferments, not cancellations. Just because you can't be evicted now, doesn't mean you can't after the crisis has ended. If you didn't pay knowing you couldn't be evicted, plan to pay back any months you didn't pay once the situation has normalized.
However, there are a number of housing rights groups advocating a movement to end rental obligations during the crisis, most notably under the #CancelRent banner. The effort is requesting the federal government subsidize property owners so rent can be exempted. While unlikely, renters should keep an eye on the story.