How to talk to your landlord about rent if coronavirus closures have affected your paycheck

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For many out-of-work Americans, the first of the month looms larger now than it did just four short weeks ago.

Even if your landlord has announced rent cuts or is helping you cover the rent due, you may be wondering just what to do on the first of the month.

You’re not alone. Two weeks ago, a record 3.28 million Americans filed unemployment claims, and the figures for last week are expected to be even higher.

That number likely understates, by far, the number of people who have lost income as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s hard to pin down just how many tenants won’t be able to make rent in April and May. What’s certain is that “we’re going to get so many people who aren’t used to being in this situation navigating this for the first time,” said Edmund Witter, senior managing attorney at the King County (Wash.) Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project. “There’s going to be a lot of economic uncertainty in a lot of people’s lives.”

Landlords anticipate that in some buildings primarily housing hourly wage-earners, as many as 50% of tenants may be unable to pay some or all of their rent.

“They never taught this scenario in any property management classes,” said Darren Reynolds, the property management director for Pilot Northwest, which owns and manages properties in the Seattle area.

The firm, like many across the state, has asked tenants to reach out if they expected not to be able to meet rent in the coming months. It’s offering temporary rent reductions and payment plans to some tenants whose income has been affected by the virus.

Landlords are free to decide for themselves how much rent relief to offer tenants — or whether to offer it at all. Many are examining tenant requests for rent cuts or payment plans on a case-by-case basis. What you’re able to negotiate with them will determine how much back rent piles up before the end of the eviction moratorium.

If you can’t make your rent, here’s how to start talking to your landlord.

1. Don’t panic. Some states and municipalities have enacted eviction moratoriums, meaning you’re not going to lose your home immediately. Tenants in most public housing can’t be evicted until July 25. That includes properties with federally backed mortgages. And because it’s difficult to find new renters during the coronavirus shutdown, “landlords have a really large incentive to work with you,” Witter said.

2. Assess your resources and gather your documents. Most tenant advocates agree that if you’re able to pay your rent in full, you should — rent strikes, while politically popular, will still leave you on the hook for back rent. Look at how much you can reasonably pay now, keeping rent as a top priority, Witter said: “It’s your shelter.” If you have any documentation that specifically ties loss of income to the COVID-19 pandemic — say, a letter from your employer, successive pay stubs showing lost hours, or proof of employment in an industry that’s been forced to close — gather those to present to your landlord.

If you know you won’t be able to cover rent in full, there are many organizations specializing in rental assistance that can help. Start by calling 2-1-1, which helps direct Washingtonians to health and human services located in your community. Many rental assistance programs are specific to location and household. 2-1-1 operators can assess which programs you qualify for.

3. Contact your landlord, in writing. Explain the situation. If you’re going to be late on rent, tell your landlord when you believe you can have the payment. If you’re not sure, propose a payment plan. Include documentation of your loss of income, if you have it. “For landlords and property managers, the biggest fear is being taken advantage of,” said Jason Kono, a principal at Pilot Northwest. “How do you work with people who need it, while not being taken advantage of by people who see this opportunistically?” Showing that you’re being “honest and realistic about what you can pay,” Witter said, “will help the landlord see you’re acting in good faith.”

4. Draft a payment plan with your landlord. Don’t expect a landlord to agree to a payment plan that’s going to last more than a year, said William Justyk, a real estate attorney with landlord clients who also volunteers with the Housing Justice Project. But offering to pay back what you owe in six months is “reasonable,” he said. As for a short timeline, like “three months — I would encourage a landlord to accept that.” Don’t oversell your ability to pay, though. Ask your landlord not to slap on any late fees and “go out as far as the landlord will let you,” said Mark Chattin, the director of Catholic Community Services of Western Washington’s tenant law center. “We still don’t know how long this will go on.”

5. Stay in touch with your landlord. The federal government Sunday extended lockdown guidelines through the end of April, meaning local dining, hospitality and retail employees, not to mention gig workers, are likely in for at least another month of tenuous employment. “We already know that whatever we figure out (with tenants) now is likely to be entirely different in 30 days,” Kono said. As your employment situation changes, keep your landlord up to date about your ability to pay. If negotiations sour and you find yourself in need of legal advice, call 2-1-1 to learn about free legal resources for tenants.

Above all, make sure you know your rights. Different jurisdictions have enacted a patchwork of eviction moratoriums that expire on different days. Some, like Seattle’s, prevent landlords from charging late fees; however, Washington’s statewide eviction moratorium allows landlords to charge late fees.

It’s important to note that the moratoriums don’t prevent all evictions: Landlords can still evict tenants if they believe it is necessary to ensure the health and safety of the tenant or others. And if you live in federally subsidized housing, or if your landlord has a federally backed mortgage or receives a low-income housing tax credit, you can’t be evicted until July 25, and your landlord can’t charge late fees.


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