The Rent’s Too Damn High For Everyone Now
The coronavirus-related shutdowns began just a couple weeks ago, but we're already seeing the dramatic fallout in astronomical unemployment numbers — 3.3 million as of this morning. March might've felt like it lasted forever this year, but April is less than week away. Bills are due, including the pesky rent that permits you to shelter in place under a roof. Many landlords have been understanding of this unique situation. There's Mike Shelley in Portland, Oregon, who has agreed to reduce tenants' rent by $200 indefinitely. We all have to get through this together! Also, it's not worth it to just repeal and replace tenants who fall behind on rent.
SHELLEY: Then I have to clean the place, re-paint it, put in another ad, find another tenant, screen them, move them in — it's a hassle and it's a lot of my time.
Other landlords have been less understanding. Allentown, Pennsylvania, developer Nat Hyman took the “fuck you, pay me" approach. Hyman Properties sent a letter to tenants acknowledging that times are tough but there's still no room at the inn for deadbeats.
Despite these circumstances, you are required to pay your rent on time. While this may sound like we are being uncaring, please keep in mind that all of our expenses, including bank mortgages, taxes, insurance, etc. continue to be due and payable on time. Our policies to enforce the payment of rent remain exactly as they were before.
If you are not able to pay your rent in full, please contact the office and we will arrange a date for you to move out of your apartment.
Hyman threatened to charge a $50 late fee if tenants missed payment by just one day. If suckers didn't have his money by April 6, he'd file evictions and cut the cable. Hyman personally apologized for the letter Monday or more to the point threw one of his managers under the guillotine. He claimed it wasn't "worded as well as it could have been," as if somehow the ghost of Jane Austen could've made that shit seem less grotesque. Some cities and states, including Pennsylvania, had already frozen evictions at this time because what you don't want during a pandemic is increased homelessness. And that's what we're looking at if you evict people at a time when no one's hiring. If it was in the public interest to keep people out of bars and restaurants, it's equally important to prevent people from having to camp out on the streets.
Shelley is an all-around better person and businessman than Hyman. He understands that if landlords empty their buildings now they will stay empty for a long time. But Hyman isn't the only landlord living in an alternate reality where the coronavirus doesn't exist. A South Austin, Texas, couple who worked in what was once the restaurant business received this lovely letter from their management company:
Thank you for being a resident of Ely Properties. We hope that you and your family are doing well in these unprecedented times.
Thank you for understanding the coronavirus pandemic in no way changes your legal obligations to pay your rent. These trying times will be hard on all of us, but we see this ending soon and look forward to life returning to normal.
It's not that tenants don't want to pay their rent. They literally can't. They have no income. As Woody tried to explain to his clueless rich girlfriend on an episode of “Cheers": “I don't have any money — nothing in my shoe, nothing under the mattress. Nothing! You take all the money in all the world and get rid of it, and that's how much money I have."
Landlords are better off negotiating payment plans with existing tenants than expecting anyone else to have first and last month's rent with a security deposit ready to go. This isn't intended to bash all landlords. It's common to view them as economic parasites or to use a more polite Austen-period term, “landed gentry." But it's not quite that simple. Landlords are on the hook for a lot of essential services that they can't suspend during the pandemic.
According to Market Watch, 50 percent of rental units nationwide are owned by so-called “mom-and-pop" landlords. These are people who own only a “few" buildings or even just the duplex they live in themselves. And while landlords, unlike renters, can apply for mortgage "forebearance" for either 60 days or a year, depending, the reality is that many landlords face foreclosure if this goes on too long. They're not Boeing, after all. Meanwhile, some Republican senators are afraid that unemployment benefits during an economic collapse might be too generous.
It's also true that tenants have the leverage right now. The boom market suddenly went bust and it's affecting everyone. If there's a solution at all, kicking people out of their homes isn't it.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."