The phones have been ringing at a steady clip in Samuel J. Himmelstein's office in New York City. Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents tenants and renters in the city, says that while he might typically receive 10 phone calls or emails a day from prospective clients who need legal help, the coronavirus pandemic has increased that number by as much as 400%.
"Believe it or not, being a tenant lawyer in the midst of all this makes you one of the most popular people in New York City," Himmelstein says. "I've never seen it quite like this."
Millions of people are struggling to make rent because of the pandemic due to being out of work. In many parts of the country, though, temporary rules protecting renters from eviction are set to expire. With rent due at the beginning of the month, renters who don't have the money to pay are wondering where to turn.
At the beginning of May, almost 20% of renters in the U.S. had not made their monthly rent payment, according to data from the National Multifamily Housing Council, which tracks 11.5 million apartment rentals across the country. Other companies tracking renting data have found similar trends. Only 69% of renters were able to make their full payment at the beginning of May, according to statistics from rental marketplace Apartment List.
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The people who are having the most trouble making rent are those who earn the least. "People are really struggling. Even before the pandemic we had a shortage of 7 million homes for low-income people," says Diane Yentel, the president and CEO of National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for housing affordability.
"You're always one financial emergency away from not being able to pay the rent," she says, and in many cases "the coronavirus is that emergency."
Emily A. Benfer, a professor at Columbia Law School who has been following and documenting rent freezes and moratorium policies across the country, says that renters shouldn't count on those breaks getting extended, either.
"By June, half of the country will not be protected by a state-level moratorium from eviction," Benfer says. "The states that are coming up on expiration, they've all stated that they won't be renewing the moratorium. What this could mean is that we're on the brink of a wave of evictions."
The most important thing to keep in mind, both Benfer and Himmelstein say, is that the rules, regulations, and protections concerning renters and eviction vary depending on where you live. Renters in New York City, Himmelstein says, have much more support than renters in Wyoming. So be sure you're aware of what local protections may apply to you.
If you find yourself in a position in which you think you might not be able to pay rent next month, experts say, there are a few other things you can do as well.
The first step experts advise you take is to reach out to your landlord, whether that's a private property owner or a property management company. Let them know your situation and see what they can do to work with you. Those options could include your making partial payments or agreeing to pay later.
Some landlords and property management companies previously announced measures that will allow tenants to defer part of their rent, in an effort to avoid evictions. They may be willing to work out an alternative payment plan or schedule, or even let you break your lease without penalty if you have somewhere else you can go.
Be aware that there's no guarantee that your landlord will be receptive. Still, "from the tenant perspective, they should be talking with their landlord if possible," Corianne Scally, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, previously told Grow.
While the federal government is not planning on extending national rent freezes or other measures to help renters (though some provisions are included in the proposed HEROES Act currently with the Senate), there may be help available on a local level, especially in large cities.
"Many states are funding or developing renters assistance programs," says Benfer. "You can usually call your local representatives to learn about how to apply for those programs."
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In New York City, for example, there are several places renters can turn for assistance, all of which have been around since before the pandemic. If you qualify, Himmelstein says, you may be able to get cash assistance to help pay rent. One such program, called "the One Shot Deal," is a one-time emergency cash grant designed to help those that cannot pay due to an unforeseen situation — like the coronavirus.
Many of these programs are already stressed to the breaking point. "There have been assistance programs that have had to shut down within hours or days because the resources were depleted so quickly," says Yentel.
Still, the experts say you should check to see what's available.
The final thing you can and perhaps should do is to look for legal help. While the prospect of hiring and paying for a lawyer can be intimidating, you may be able to get assistance free of charge. In some places, you may even be entitled to it.
"New York has a right-to-counsel law, so if you're a tenant and within 200% of federal poverty guidelines, you qualify to have a free lawyer represent you in housing court," says Himmelstein.
Because the courts are still shut down in some areas, including New York City, many landlords likely won't be able to file eviction papers until courts open back up, he adds. That doesn't mean that renters can necessarily get away with refusing to pay, but it might provide some breathing room for some households.
Since squatting and ignoring your landlord's calls isn't legally advisable, experts say you should reach out to a legal professional before you get an eviction notice to help you navigate the courts and to get a better understanding of your rights.
"It's really important that renters seek legal assistance to determine what their rights are," says Benfer. "It's highly likely that if you're facing eviction, that you're eligible for pro-bono legal services."
Benfer, Himmelstein, and Yentel all say that the only realistic way to protect renters around the country is for the federal government to step in with blanket rental assistance programs and eviction moratoria, which are included in the HEROES Act. But it's unlikely that the HEROES Act will be passed as is.
Still, Yentel says she's optimistic that the federal government will take action, because both sides of the aisle "understand the need for housing assistance." And because "the pressure is building on policymakers to do something" to help renters, she says, "there's absolutely a chance" that further assistance arrives for renters sooner rather than later.
This story has been updated to correct the shortage of homes for low-income people and clarify the National Low Income Housing Coalition's stance on protections for renters.
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