Small-scale landlords, renters both struggling during pandemic

The extended unemployment benefits that have kept 12 million people afloat are scheduled to expire Dec. 26. On New Year’s Day, a national ban on renter evictions is set to lapse. Both landlords and renters are facing a looming housing abyss. 

Leah Millis/Reuters
People gather outside of an apartment complex to protest the alleged eviction of one of the tenants in Mount Rainier, Maryland, Aug. 10, 2020. When renter evictions expire at the end of the year, a nation-wide $70 billion bill in unpaid rent and utilities will come due.

Clarence Hamer doesn’t expect to hang on to his house much longer.

His downstairs tenant owes him nearly $50,000 in back rent on the four-bedroom duplex he owns in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Without those rental payments, Mr. Hamer has been unable to pay the thousands he owes in heat, hot water, and property taxes. In September, after exhausting his life savings, he stopped paying the mortgage, too.

“I don’t have any corporate backing or any other type of insurance,” said Mr. Hamer, a landlord who works for the city of New York. “All I have is my home, and it seems apparent that I’m going to lose it.”

America’s mom-and-pop landlords, along with their tenants, have been dangling by a thread for nine months. Now, with Congress still deadlocked over the contours of a second pandemic stimulus package, they are entering a new housing abyss, a perilous period of pandemic limbo as the last of the safety nets are set to expire.

The day after Christmas, the extended unemployment benefits that have kept 12 million people and their families afloat are scheduled to expire. Then, mere days after that cliff, on New Year’s Day, a national ban on renter evictions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also set to lapse.

Overnight, an unprecedented bill of $70 billion in unpaid back rent and utilities will come due, according to estimates by Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi. In all, up to 40 million people could be threatened with eviction over the coming months, research from the Aspen Institute says.

Much of the focus has been on tenants. But Stacey Johnson-Cosby, president of the Kansas City Regional Housing Alliance, says more than 40% of the landlords surveyed in her coalition said that they expected to have to sell their units in the coming months due to rental income losses.

“They are sheltering our citizens free of charge and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Ms. Johnson-Cosby. “This is their retirement income.”

She added that small landlords are also terrified of speaking out for fear of drawing the ire of tenant rights groups who promote “Cancel Rent” and have bombarded landlords with publicity campaigns featuring their pictures and barricades at apartment buildings and local courthouses.

“What they don’t realize is that if they run us out and we fail, it will be private equity and Wall Street firms that buy up all our properties, just like they did with houses after the last foreclosure crash.”

Pandemic deadlock

A $908 billion second stimulus relief package proposed by a bipartisan group of senators is gaining traction in Washington but it is unclear if President Donald Trump will support the plan, and it only includes $25 billion for rent relief – far from the $70 billion needed in January.

President-elect Joe Biden has indicated he will sign executive orders the day he takes office extending moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures as well as other relief measures.

But that will not address a brutal 20 days in January, between the safety net expirations and Mr. Biden’s inauguration, when the free fall will begin. And economists say this period of uncertainty has already contributed to economic scarring that could threaten the United States’ economic recovery, which is showing signs of slowing and veering back into recession.

Though Mr. Biden will likely be telegraphing his administration’s solutions in the coming weeks, “the reality on the ground is going to be very dark, with people losing homes in the dead of winter during a pandemic, said Moody’s Mr. Zandi. “It’s going to be very painful and devastating. There’s going to be a lot of people who fall through the cracks.”

Underscoring the urgency of the situation is the fact that new research shows that evictions have led to increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

A report released Nov. 30 by a consortium of university researchers found that there were 433,700 excess cases of COVID-19 and 10,700 excess deaths associated with the lifting of eviction moratoriums during the summer, before the blanket CDC ban began. States that let moratoriums expire had a 2.1-times higher incidence of cases and 5.4-times higher mortality, according to the researchers from Johns Hopkins University and other four other universities.

The cost of this housing instability is not spread evenly, as Black Americans, whose employment has been hit the hardest during the pandemic, comprise 80% of those facing eviction in major cities and are also more than twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than white people.

Zombie properties 

At first, it all seemed easy. In May 2019, Mr. Hamer’s new tenant had passed a background check and said she would live a quiet life with her elderly father and boyfriend in the $3,250-a-month duplex.

Two months after moving in, she stopped paying the full rent. Mr. Hamer tried everything: calling her, texting her, knocking on her door – but to no avail. In August 2019, he filed an eviction notice. But the court date kept getting delayed until March 2020, when COVID-19 hit and the courts ground to a halt.

Then, his tenant sublet the unit to other people – Mr. Hamer is hamstrung from getting them out, too. He says they have trashed the once-tidy unit, and that there is a constant odor of marijuana, and foot traffic in and out of the home at all hours of the day. He watches it all and feels powerless, his net worth now turned into a zombie property.

“They are going to foreclose. It’s only going to be a matter of time,” said Mr. Hamer. “And rightfully so, I can’t blame them. Apparently we are all in this together – unless you are a landlord.”

This story was reported by Reuters.

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