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When rent is due, landlords and tenants both worry now

caption: Megan Crouch and her 2 year old son Zxavier
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Megan Crouch and her 2 year old son Zxavier
Megan Crouch

During the pandemic, it’s not just renters who are having trouble paying the bills. Landlords are stressed too. And with a ban on evictions, they’ve lost a degree of control over their own finances.

Megan Crouch is a medical assistant who can’t pay her rent.

She works in an orthopedic office where things were slow during the ban on elective surgeries. She’s a new employee, so she hadn’t accrued any paid time off yet.

Then, she lost her childcare.

“So I actually ended up having to take a personal leave of absence from work until, I don’t know, until the world decides to stop ending?" she said in a Zoom interview.

As if on cue, her toddler Xzavier waddled up and demanded her attention: "Mom, I'm clean now. Mom, I'm clean now."

"Good job," she told him, before turning back to her phone's screen.

"It’s a helpless feeling," she continued. "I can’t stick my son in a closet for nine hours a day so I can go to work."

Crouch applied for, and has begun receiving unemployment. But after three weeks of no pay, she said it wasn’t enough to catch up on her bills.

“I’ve never been this far behind on everything,” she said.

Crouch said she worked out a deal with her landlord. She’d pay half of April, and the rest later. But now it’s May, and she still can’t pay.

“You know, I’m glad that they’re working with me, but on the other hand, I panic, because at any point, they could say, 'We’re losing out too much on this and we can’t be as lenient anymore'” she said.

Karl Neiders owns her building. He said he’s glad Crouch was transparent with her financial situation. It lets him plan ahead and project cash flow across his 4,000 or so apartment units. But like his tenant, he worries things will only get worse.

“We have Tuesday meetings and our area managers come in and they talk about, they say we talked about this distressed family: a single mother, two children," he said. "And she’s worried about getting food, and now we’re not talking about where to get rent resources, we’re talking about where to get food resources.”

About 12% of his renters aren’t paying now. He says eventually, that’s going to give him trouble.

“We can take care of our residents most all the time. We do everything we can.”

Neiders, who is soft-spoken and thoughtful in his responses, struggled to find words for what came next.

“The eventuality is that we’re gonna – that we be at conflict with what our morals are, which is do the right thing and take care of the resident. And we want that to last. We want to take care of them.”

Neiders said the state needs to get better and faster at distributing unemployment to people who file for it, so that they can pay their rent. Because, he said, it's his experience that many renters who get too far behind never climb out of that hole.

The stress renters everywhere are facing today has galvanized activists. They want to see relief go beyond deferred rent.

“It’s not even close to good enough,” said Holly Blue, a Seattle resident working for the organizations Rent Strike 2020 and the Puget Sound Tenants Union.

“Deferring the due date ... All it does is make sure that instead of being evicted when the moratorium ends, people are just being buried under thousands of dollars of debt,” she said.

Blue said renters need to leverage the power they have now and ask landlords for more. She said landlords could look at the renters need, and forgive rent selectively, or “ideally, you’d just forgive everyone’s rent, and we just kind of take a pause for a few months. I promise you, they can take the hit. All but a couple people.”

Dana Frank disputes the claim that landlords can just absorb that cost. She’s a property owner with about 150 renters; many in Seattle's Central District.

She’s frustrated that Seattle just extended the moratorium on evictions. She said that gives renters an excuse not to pay even when they can pay.

Frank said, recently, "one of the residents told us 'Well, I've got my half; my roommate doesn't.' Well, we always look at rent as a whole."

Frank, who employs a number of people including a handyman she calls on so often she jokingly refers to him as "my husband from the waist up," worries about failing to meet her payroll or even losing her properties.

caption: Dana Frank
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Dana Frank
Dana Frank

“My parents started investing as African Americans in the 1950s, having to fight redlining and we put pickets on banks to get funding. And then here I am, 35 years later, still fighting government to get rent for housing --quality housing.”

Holly Blue, the Rent Strike activist, agreed that "some of these expenses are legitimate," but suggested that landlords could open their books, list their expenses and ask renters to at least cover their costs during the pandemic.

"They wouldn't make a profit," she said, but they could at least skate through the pandemic.

"But that's not happening," she said.

Property owners said that approach wouldn't work.

In the end, we’ll know which landlords could absorb the cost of unpaid rent and which couldn’t when they either survive the financial crisis or start selling off their properties.

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