3 ways to get help with your rent during coronavirus

If you're unsure whether you'll be able to pay rent as the pandemic continues, it's worth seeking help. One move: Reach out to your landlord and ask for a break.

Illustration by Neha Dharkar

On Monday, the GOP-led Senate released its proposal for another coronavirus stimulus package, called the HEALS Act. The roughly $1 trillion bill provides $3.3 billion in housing assistance for low-income tenants but does not extend the federal eviction moratorium. Without further action, that moratorium expires Friday.

Many renters sorely need protection: One in five Americans who live in renter households are at risk of being evicted by September 30, according to the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project. And more than 9 million Americans say they have no confidence they can pay August's rent, according to a Census Bureau survey

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, housing was getting less affordable, says Eva Rosen, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in poverty and American public housing. "We've had an affordable housing crisis before the pandemic hit, and now we have an even bigger affordable housing crisis," she says. 

If you're concerned about your ability to pay rent next month, or in the coming months, experts say it's important to take proactive steps now to try and prevent your own eviction. Here are three ways to get help:

Ask your landlord for a break — and give a specific reason

Requesting relief from your landlord may sound simple or obvious, but many tenants don't ask their landlord about getting a break on rent, Rosen says. "A lot of folks don't realize that they can negotiate and that landlords are people too," she says. 

When reaching out to your landlord by phone or email, make sure to be honest and specific about your financial situation. For example, that you recently lost your job or racked up high medical bills.

It also helps to research what rental prices are currently like in your neighborhood by searching on a real estate finder like StreetEasy. In some big cities, the pandemic has triggered notable rental price drops, which you can use to help you strike a bargain.

Market prices helped Elizabeth Donoghue, a New York City lawyer, negotiate a 25% rent reduction for a client, according to The Cut. She told her client's landlord that because the value of property in New York City had decreased, her client could probably get a comparable place for less money.

Research rent relief options 

Just because the federal government might not extended eviction moratorium doesn't mean there are not government relief programs available to you. Legalfaq.org allows tenants to see what protections are currently offered in their state, including eviction moratorium and links to local organizations that provide housing aid. 

"There are various sorts of mortgage freezes and eviction moratoriums, many of which are expiring across the country, but many of which are still in place," Rosen says. 

For example, Marin County, California, has had a temporary eviction moratorium since March and just this week passed legislation extending it through September. The ban prevents landlords from evicting tenants who miss a rent payment due to financial impacts related to Covid-19. 

There are various sorts of mortgage freezes and eviction moratoriums, many of which are expiring across the country, but many of which are still in place.
Eva Rosen
professor at Georgetown University

Covid-19-related reasons for loss of income could include losing your job, having your hours cut, or being sick and unable to work, among others, says Leelee Thomas, community development planning manager at Marin County. 

"It's difficult for people to pay rent as is," Thomas says. "A lot of our households are already rent burdened." 

The extension is meant to give the state extra time to pass more encompassing legislation like AB 1436, which states that tenants will have "15 months from the end of the Covid-19 emergency declaration to arrange for voluntary repayment before unpaid rent is considered in default," among other protections, she says. 

Renters may also find they have protections that aren't related to the pandemic. For example, many states, including New York and Illinois, also allow tenants to apply their security deposit to their rent. This could buy you an extra month of breathing room before you have to come up with rent. 

Try for a permanent reduction instead of a payment plan

If your landlord is open to negotiating, "try to get a permanent reduction rather than setting up a payment plan," Rosen says. 

Payment plans work in situations when you can at least loosely predict the next few months. If you know you'll be unable to work for two months due to illness, for example, then it may be smart to ask your landlord about reducing rent for a couple months and repaying the difference when you are able to return to work.

However, a pandemic is difficult to predict. "You can't make a plan if you don't know what the future holds," Rosen says. Because Americans do not know when they will go back to work or when a vaccine will be widely available, a payment plan might backfire. 

What happens after enhanced unemployment benefits run out?

Video by Stephen Parkhurst

Also consider: Contact your representatives

"While it's great to empower tenants to talk to their landlord, it's putting the onus on the tenant to solve a problem that is not their problem alone," Rosen says. That's why you need to call your local officials and pressure them to pass legislation that would extended eviction moratoriums or offer permanent rent relief.

"The more people who make it clear they need immediate rent relief, the harder it will be for politicians to ignore that fact," she says. 

More from Grow: