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When Rent Comes Due During COVID-19

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

When April First came around, many weren’t able to make rent after being laid off in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic.

Friday is May First and the problem is set to repeat itself.

Late this March, tenants and landlords started sending letters.  "We knew that April 1st was going to be coming and rent was going to be due.  Knowing that people were losing their jobs or getting reduced hours,  we knew that some people were gonna have a hard time paying their rent," says Andew Chisholm. Chisholm helps manage thousands of rental units across Virginia and the country for Drucker and Faulk.

Trade groups had encouraged property managers to reach out to tenants to remind them they could work out a payment plan if they couldn’t pay rent. Some companies didn’t, but Chisholm’s did.   "Anytime we can get ahead of things and  have those conversations with people in advance and understand their circumstances," is a plus Chisholm says.  "Unfortunately, in some cases, individuals just don't communicate until it's too late."

By April 12, only 84% of rent payments were made, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. Chisholm’s company’s payments were down by less than he expected, but he’s still nervous about May.  

Having trouble paying rent?  Click here for resources from the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

One renter that contacted her landlord was Zoe Brzezinski.  She's lived in Richmond for the past seven years or so. 

Zoe was working as a cook but she was laid off. Her roommate got laid off too. A few days before April rent was due Brzezinski called their landlord to describe their circumstances.  "I called him about it and it just didn't seem like he cared," Brzezinski remebers.  "I was like, ‘we both lost our jobs. We're waiting on our unemployment checks.’ And he was just like, ‘Oh, well, we'll see what the courts say.’"

Courts probably won’t say anything until May 17th at the earliest. That’s when a judicial emergency is set to expire. Until then courts aren’t processing evictions. And since you need a court order to be evicted, it's essentially a freeze on most evictions.

In the meantime, housing activists in Richmond organizing.  There's an online forum for a group of activists organizing a rent strike. They’re providing tenants with resources for researching their landlords and a framework for networking with other tenants. Then those networks decide together if they want to negotiate collectively for lower rents or rent freezes.

Letting people know that they can organize is hard with social distancing in place. But they’ve held parades of cars honking horns to bring attention to their efforts.  One of those participating in the rent strike is Marie.  "I'm one of an autonomous collective that are advocating for a rent strike in Richmond," Marie says.  Marie didn’t give their last name. They were worried their landlord would retaliate against them for speaking to the media. 

Marie sent their landlord a letter, too.  "So we've said: Our tenant council is contacting you today to address April Rent.  We believe that the unique challenges that COVID-19 poses, it is in our best interests to protect all tenants regardless of income. And we'll be communicating with your office only as a collective unit. Thank you. Signed, our council. "

Even if they are able to stay in their homes without paying rent, renters like Brzezinski foresee the issue of finding new housing once their lease is up.   "If any landlord hears about the situation I'm going through right now, they might be reluctant to sign a lease with me because I don't really have a job right now and I didn't end my last lease in a very agreeable way," she admits.

April was the first month for rent problems in the age of COVID-19, but with several weeks left in stay at home orders, the fallout for housing is set to continue.

Brzezinski scraped together to pay rent for April, but she’s mentally preparing to start looking for a new place to live.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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