What to do if you can’t pay rent amid coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus has left countless Americans are in financial straits. As of April 30, more than 30 million people applied for unemployment benefits, and nearly a third of renters across the US weren’t able to make their monthly payments last month — when the economy was stronger than it is now.

New York, which has been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus, is also facing intimidatingly high housing costs. Nearly 44 percent of New York City residents will struggle to make rent in May, according to a survey by real estate group PropertyNest.

Nationwide #CancelRent protests on May 1, historically a day to honor workers’ rights, are just the beginning. In New York, tenants voiced their discontent on social media — and on their homes and cars, unfurling banners with slogans like “Cancel Rent, Cuomo.” With nearly 200,000 tenants stopping rent payments nationally and demanding rent forgiveness given the coronavirus crisis, it is likely the biggest rent strike in American history.

On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged the May Day protesters and their cause, but offered no solution for tenants who aren’t able to pay beyond a ban on evictions until June. “What we’re doing is, no one can be evicted for nonpayment of rent between now and June, period,” he said.

Here’s some advice if rent burdens are affecting you during these uncertain times.

What should you do if you can’t pay your rent?

It’s important to do your research and know which protections for eviction and rent nonpayment apply to tenants where you live. “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?” the managing attorney for the Housing Unit at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, Rachel Garland, tells CNN.

In New York, all tenants are protected under a state eviction moratorium that is in effect until at least June 20.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has also barred evictions due to coronavirus hardship. Tenants, however, must provide proof their income has been affected by the pandemic.

Chicago officials have proposed the Chicago Housing Solidarity Pledge to protect those who have lost income due to the virus, and landlords who take the pledge will give eligible renters “who demonstrate significant financial impact resulting from COVID-19” some combination of grace periods on rent payments, written repayment plans or waived late fees for missed payments.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has been tracking every state’s actions and measures amid the coronavirus on its website.

Do I still need to pay rent if I am am protected from eviction?

Yes, you still need to pay rent even if evictions are banned. Though coronavirus-modified eviction rules vary from state to state, a landlord must get obtain a court order in order to begin eviction proceedings; a simple notice or letter of eviction isn’t enough. Those protections are in place for those who suffered sudden financial hardship as a result of the pandemic.

If you had a pending eviction case prior to the coronavirus, those proceedings have been temporarily adjourned.

But even though you can’t be evicted right now, the repercussions of late or unpaid rent can add up and result in serious consequences after eviction bans are lifted. Is it better to pursue other options, like negotiate with your landlord or apply for housing assistance programs.

What options do I have if I can’t pay?

The first thing to do is to talk to your landlord. Be honest and discuss your situation, ideally giving the property owner or management company as much notice as you can, then work towards a repayment arrangement together.

That could mean restructuring your payments with a payment plan, noting the specific date they will be paid in full. Make it as easy for your landlord as possible, advises Michael Hochman at ApartmentGuide.com. Put the plan in writing and do your best to assure your landlord that this is temporary. As a last resort, Hochman recommends taking out a loan if you have good credit.

If you’re unable to come to an agreement with your landlord, refer to the list of rental assistance programs compiled on the website of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which includes links to tenants’ rights resources and financial assistance programs.

New Yorkers who qualify may be able to get help through the One Shot Deal, an emergency one-time payment for housing assistance.

And if you or anyone in your household is a veteran, HUD and the US Veterans Administration may also have helpful rent assistance programs.

On May 1, protestors in Brooklyn hung banners asking for rent freezes and forgiveness due to the coronavirus.
On May 1, protestors in Brooklyn hung banners asking for rent freezes and forgiveness due to the coronavirus.AFP via Getty Images

Is there any other financial help coming, like another stimulus check or aid package?

Governor Cuomo is eyeing some new rent-relief solutions, according to the Real Deal, but nothing is concrete yet. Proposals include extending the eviction moratorium and/or offering a rental subsidy for low-income tenants.

In April, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar proposed a bill to institute a nationwide cancellation of rents and home mortgage payments through the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, which would include full payment forgiveness with no accumulation of debt for renters or homeowners. Co-sponsors included Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Grace Meng of New York. But the bill has not been approved yet.

Also in April, a pair of House Democrats, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Rep. Ro Khanna of California, put forth the Emergency Money for the People Act, where every American age 16 and older making less than $130,000 annually would receive at least $2,000 per month until US employment returns to pre-pandemic levels. If you are unemployed, you would also be eligible for the $2,000/month.

Other proposed legislation from Capitol Hill Democrats would prioritize hazard pay for essential workers and expanded unemployment insurance. House Democrats also recently introduced a bill to pay for 100 percent of COBRA subsidies for laid-off and furloughed workers.

What happens to my rent if I’m diagnosed with COVID-19?

Here’s the good news: Your landlord cannot ask you to leave your home if you are sick with or have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants. Again, evictions are currently banned.

Being in isolation or quarantine in a hospital or other facility does not change your tenancy — your apartment or house remains your primary residence.

“Your landlord cannot discriminate against you, kick you out or ask you to leave your apartment because of fears and stigma around COVID-19, including discrimination or harassment on the basis of actual or perceived race, national origin, disability, or other protected classes,” the mayor’s office states. “If you are facing discrimination and harassment by your landlord, please visit the NYC Commission on Human Rights and fill out the form to report discrimination.”

What happens when the eviction moratorium is lifted?

No further aid has been announced for renters yet. But Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris has proposed new legislation that would suspend rent for 90 days for both residential and commercial tenants (like restaurants and shops) impacted by the state’s outbreak of COVID-19.

Tenant advocates are quick to point out that, once the ban on evictions is lifted on June 20, thousands of New Yorkers could face eviction. The legislation would also provide mortgage relief to the landlords of qualifying tenants.

The City Council is proposing an up to year-long pause on evictions “for New Yorkers impacted by COVID-19” as part of a relief package addressing the pandemic, according to draft text of the legislation obtained by Curbed. Sponsored by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the legislation would pause evictions and debt collection for both residential and commercial tenants until Sept. 30, following the expiration of state and federal eviction moratoriums.



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