More than a third of American households rent their homes, and for many tenants, rent will be due on April 1. That could pose a problem for people who have lost jobs or otherwise seen their income disrupted during the coronavirus outbreak.
Many local and state governments are stepping in to pass temporary measures that protect renters. And some landlords are stepping up, too.
Here's what renters need to know about their options.
As of Wednesday, 21 states and Washington, D.C., have issued eviction freezes, and another six have closed courts or halted eviction hearings.
Essentially, that means that many landlords cannot take action to remove renters who are unable to pay, at least not right now.
The situation varies by state. For example, Maine is still allowing landlords to issue eviction notices but has closed its courts for all hearings — including evictions — until May 1.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a 90-day moratorium on residential and commercial evictions statewide. So "you will not be taken to court if you are unable to pay the money, at least until the housing courts reopen, which won't happen for at least 90 days," says Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a New York-based advocacy group.
"If you cannot pay the rent on April 1, you are not alone," she says. "And you can not pay the rent knowing that you will be free from consequences in the short term."
Several large cities have also paused evictions within their limits, regardless of any statewide freeze. For example, last week, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a 60-day moratorium on residential evictions.
Mortgage relief may also help some renters avoid eviction where there's no state or city edict in effect. On Monday, the Federal Housing Finance Agency — which oversees Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — announced that landlords who owned multifamily properties would be eligible for mortgage forbearance, on the condition that they suspend evictions for their tenants who are unable to pay due to the coronavirus.
The $2 trillion emergency stimulus bill that the Senate passed late Wednesday strengthens that protection. It prevents landlords receiving forbearance on a federally backed mortgage from evicting tenants for nonpayment, and from charging them any late fee or penalties. That bill is expected to pass the House on Friday.
So if your landlord has a mortgage through Fannie Mae or a Freddie Mac, and they're suspending their payments because of the coronavirus, they can't evict you.
"From the tenant perspective, they should be talking with their landlord if possible," says Corianne Scally, principal research associate at the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.
Landlords may be willing to offer help in the form of reducing, delaying, or waiving payment. Over the past week, many people have taken to social media to share stories of getting a sympathetic response.
Nina Job, a hairdresser from Queens, New York, tells Grow she's been working with her landlord to defer and possibly reduce her rent payments for the time being, since New York and three neighboring states shut down all salons, tattoo, massage, and piercing parlors indefinitely due to the outbreak.
"I know my landlady would absolutely work with me," Job says. "She's probably gonna cut [rent] in half. … She knows now, at this point, we're all out of work."
Some landlords of larger properties have also announced measures that will allow tenants to defer part of their rent.
While many states and big cities have paused evictions, as of Wednesday, they have yet to issue any wide-scale rent freezes, where tenants would no longer be legally obligated to pay their monthly rent. In fact, the eviction freeze order California Governor Gavin Newsom issued last week explicitly does not "relieve a tenant of the obligation to pay rent."
But rent freezes could be coming. New York State Senator Michael Gianaris introduced a 90-day rent freeze bill on Tuesday, while the Los Angeles City Council had a similar rent freeze on its agenda this week before the outbreak led to its canceling meetings for the remainder of March.
As things stand, if you don't pay rent, the potential consequences could depend on where you live. Even if there's a no-eviction mandate in place, observers say it's unclear if you could be evicted in the future for nonpayment now, or if you'll owe back rent once all of this is over. That's another issue local and state lawmakers are working out.
Experts say that in times of financial hardship, it's important to prioritize the expenses that will endanger you and your family if you don't pay them. The National Consumer Law Center normally lists rent payment under this category, but if you live in a jurisdiction where evictions are temporarily halted, it may be less of an immediate concern than putting food on the table.
As Congress works toward a $2 trillion stimulus package that could provide direct checks to many taxpayers, it's important to consider the best ways to use those funds to make it through these tough times.
Weaver and Housing Justice for All maintain that any relief package from either the state or federal government should take that dynamic into account.
"Any federal stimulus that's translated to just direct cash support for individuals needs to go into circulation for groceries or for medical care," says Weaver. "Just using that money to pay the rent is not enough."
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