'It's Like A Nightmare': Options Dwindle For Renters Facing Economic Distress

Jun 1, 2020
Originally published on June 1, 2020 6:00 pm

As one of the country's worst economic and health crises in history deepens, rent is due again for millions of people who are struggling to make ends meet.

Over the last few months, states and the federal government have taken steps to help tenants who've lost their jobs. Now, while the unemployment rate is still climbing, some of the protections for renters are running out.

An extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits for eligible people is set to expire at the end of July, for instance.

In March, Elaine Slikkerveer lost her job teaching art for a nonprofit in Reno, Nev., as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the single mother of two is struggling to pay the rent and has had to consider uprooting her family from the condo they've rented for 10 years.

"I have anxiety. I can't sleep," 51-year-old Slikkerveer says.

To make her April and May rent, she stopped making payments on other bills, used her government relief checks and dug into her savings. When she reached out to her landlord to discuss June rent, she says that he was not understanding and insisted she needed to pay.

Last week, Slikkerveer's landlord, John Burkett, told NPR: "I sympathize with Elaine's current situation and am working with her to ease the stress," adding that "rental income is my only income so this is definitely putting a burden on me as well."

In the end, Slikkerveer says that Burkett agreed to waive her late fee and figure out a payment plan.

Slikkerveer says that six months ago, she could never have imagined being in a situation like this.

"I never dreamed about it. And to be honest with you, it's like a nightmare. It's a lot of uncertainty," she says. "I was planning, had everything planned. And nothing in my plan is working. I mean, I have nothing right now."

As tenants across the U.S. run out of options, more and more are turning to credit cards to pay the rent.

Property management company Zego processes millions of rent checks every month.

It reported that from March to April, the number of tenants putting rent on a credit card increased 30%; from April to May, it went up another 20%.

As of now, about half the states in the U.S. are allowing evictions, according to Emily Benfer of Columbia Law School, who has been tracking state policies around COVID-19 and housing.

Benfer called COVID-19 "a great magnifier of inequity and health injustice across our country." She says that people of color are evicted at higher rates than white people, especially mothers with kids.

"Today, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a black family," Benfer says. "We can expect this divide to widen as COVID-19 mortality and job loss continues to affect communities of color at a higher rate than other groups."

Some places, such as Kansas City, Mo., are conducting remote eviction hearings by phone or videoconference — effectively deciding that while it's not safe enough to show up in court, it is safe enough to evict someone from their home.

Over the last couple of months, there hasn't been a steep drop-off in the number of people paying rent. The question is what will happen in the next few months.

"We're watching a tidal wave move forward towards us and across the state," says Lee Camp, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis nonprofit organization that represents tenants.

He says that the group's phones have been flooded with calls from people seeking housing assistance. As the state reopens and evictions resume, he predicts that the tidal wave could be "all-consuming for the next few months, if not years."

There are some variables that will help determine how massive that wave will be. For instance, if Congress doesn't pass an extension of the extra unemployment benefits, tens of millions more renters could be in trouble.

Before the wave of protests against police violence started, activists around the country were holding rallies to "cancel the rent."

Ale Lomanto helps organize demonstrations in Philadelphia.

"I feel for my community and my neighbors who have to choose between putting food on the table and housing," says Lomanto, 26. "And then also putting themselves at risk to work."

Lomanto owned a pet care business in West Philadelphia before shutting it down in March. Lomanto, who uses the pronoun they, doesn't know how they're going to pay rent for June. Lomanto sublets an apartment that's managed by a company named New Age Realty and is among the 300 tenants petitioning for the suspension of rent payments during the pandemic.

Lance Roger, a real estate lawyer who represents New Age Realty, offers the landlord perspective.

"A lot of these properties are owned by investors, and these are hardworking men and women who are investing for their future," he says. "So what they've done is gone out and gotten mortgages, and when the tenants decide en masse they don't want to pay their rent, it's going to impact the ability for the landlords to make their mortgage payments."

And if more and more mortgages go unpaid, Rogers says, it could have a domino effect with broader impacts on the economy.

In 2008, the financial collapse hit homeowners more than it did renters — but the ripples spread beyond mortgage holders.

This time, if tenants across the country can't pay the rent, the ripples could reach far beyond the rental market.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today is the start of a new month, which means that for millions of Americans, rent is due. Over the last few months, states and the federal government have taken steps to help tenants who have lost their jobs. Now, while the unemployment rate is still climbing, some of the protections for renters are running out.

ELAINE SLIKKERVEER: Are you taking these thing first? OK.

SHAPIRO: Elaine Slikkerveer is a single mother of two in Reno, Nev. She and her kids are packing their things in boxes and moving them to a storage unit in case they get kicked out of the condo they've rented for the last 10 years.

SLIKKERVEER: I have anxiety. I can't sleep. I have to not paying a lot of bills in order to pay my rent from April and May. I got car payments on hold.

SHAPIRO: In March, she lost her job at a nonprofit teaching art in public schools. She hasn't been able to get through Nevada's unemployment benefits website. She used her government relief check and savings to pay rent in April and May. And when she reached out to her landlord about June, she says he wasn't very understanding.

SLIKKERVEER: The response I receive is like, I don't care. It's my money. You pay it. You know what I mean? That's why I'm a little scared.

SHAPIRO: When you think about the life that you had six months ago, could you ever have imagined that you would be in this situation today?

SLIKKERVEER: No. I never dream about it. And to be honest with you, it's like a nightmare. It's a lot of uncertainty. I mean, I had the roof all those years. I was planning, had everything planning. And nothing that I plan is - it's working. I mean, I have nothing right now.

SHAPIRO: Slikkerveer's landlord, John Burkett, told us last week, I sympathize with Elaine's current situation and am working with her to ease the stress, adding, rental income is my only income, so this is definitely putting a burden on me as well. Then yesterday, Slikkerveer told us that Burkett had agreed to waive her late fee and figure out a payment plan.

Lots of tenants are running out of options to pay. The company Zego processes millions of rent checks every month. And they say from March to April, the number of tenants putting rent on a credit card increased 30%. From April to May, it went up another 20%.

EMILY BENFER: COVID-19 is a great magnifier of inequity and health injustice across our country.

SHAPIRO: Emily Benfer of Columbia Law School has been tracking state policies around COVID-19 and housing. She says people of color are evicted at higher rates than white people, especially mothers with kids.

BENFER: Today, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a black family. We can expect this divide to widen as COVID-19 mortality and job loss continues to affect communities of color at a higher rate than other groups.

SHAPIRO: So what you're saying is this pandemic, which has disproportionately made people of color sick and die, is also now having a disproportionate impact on renters who are black and Latinx.

BENFER: Absolutely. And that's to be expected. In fact, foreclosure, housing instability and homelessness have always been pathways to poor health. And one of the outcomes includes respiratory disease and other high-risk factors for mortality of COVID-19.

SHAPIRO: As of today, Benfer says, about half the states in the U.S. are now allowing evictions. Some places are doing remote eviction hearings by phone or videoconference, effectively deciding that while it's not safe enough to show up in court, it is safe enough to evict someone from their home. Over the last couple months, we have not seen a steep drop-off in the numbers of people paying rent. The question is what will happen in the next few months.

LEE CAMP: Our phones are being flooded with people primarily asking for housing assistance at this time, and so we've had to train attorneys that traditionally don't practice in this area to be ready to meet this need.

SHAPIRO: In St. Louis, Mo., Lee Camp is an attorney with ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit organization that represents tenants.

CAMP: We are watching a tidal wave move forward towards us and across the state of this reopening and this eviction resumption beginning.

SHAPIRO: How big is the tidal wave that you anticipate coming?

CAMP: I wish I could predict it. I'm incredibly intimidated by that question because I see it being massive and all-consuming for the next few months, if not years.

SHAPIRO: There are some variables that could make the wave bigger or smaller. Congress has given eligible people an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits. That is set to expire next month. If Congress doesn't pass an extension, tens of millions more renters could be in trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: My family is struggling. Working families are struggling.

SHAPIRO: Before the wave of protests against police violence started, activists around the country were holding rallies to cancel the rent. At this demonstration in Kansas City last week, people held signs saying, end evictions or people die.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: If you don't, your neighbors will suffer, and that ain't right.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) That ain't right. That ain't right. That ain't right.

SHAPIRO: Over the past couple months, there have been similar rallies in lots of cities, many of them car caravans to allow social distancing. Ale Lomanto helped organize cancel the rent demonstrations in Philadelphia.

ALE LOMANTO: I've always been involved in activist work. And I think what this pandemic has done is definitely shone a light on a lot more that is going on within our society that we need to work on. And it really all just started because I feel for my community and my neighbors who have to choose between putting food on the table and housing and then also putting themselves at risk to work.

SHAPIRO: Lomanto had to shut down their pet care business when the pandemic hit, and they haven't been able to get unemployment benefits. They don't know how they're going to pay the rent for June.

LOMANTO: We don't really have too concrete of a plan if we do end up facing eviction. So I would probably somehow move in with a friend that's around this area.

SHAPIRO: Lomanto sublets an apartment in a building that's managed by a company called New Age Realty. And along with other tenants, Lomanto is petitioning the company to suspend all rent payments during the pandemic.

Lance Rogers is a real estate lawyer who represents New Age Realty.

LANCE ROGERS: A lot of these properties are owned by investors, and these are hardworking men and women who are investing for their future. So what they've done is gone out and gotten mortgages. And when the tenants decide en masse they don't want to pay their rent, it's going to impact the ability for the landlords to make their mortgage payments. And that, in turn, will have broader impacts across the country as more cases like this develop with regard to mortgages not being fulfilled and the impact on the economy. So it's almost like a domino effect when you think about it.

SHAPIRO: The 2008 financial collapse hit homeowners more than it did renters. But as we saw in that crisis, the ripples spread beyond mortgage holders. This time, the same principle applies. If tenants across the country can't pay the rent, the ripples could reach far beyond the rental market. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.