Jun 3, 2020
What Happens if You Can’t Pay Your Rent During Covid-19?
Understand how your rights may have changed, and communicate with your landlord.
If you’re one of the nearly 38 million people who have filed for unemployment since March, 2020, you may also be one of the many people having trouble paying rent right now.
It’s particularly a concern, since average rent in the U.S. is $1,594. That amount is barely covered by the $1,200 stimulus checks sent out in April, which were gobbled up by basic necessities in just a few days.
So if you’ve suffered from a loss of income due to the Covid-19 pandemic, here’s how to stay on top of your rent:
Know the rules
If you live in federally-subsidized housing, you’re likely to be protected under a temporary 120-day eviction moratorium that’s part of the CARES Act, the economic assistance package passed by Congress in March during the Covid-19 crisis. You won’t be evicted if you can’t cover your rent from March 27 to July 27. You also won’t be dinged for late fees or any penalties linked to non-payment of rent.
For everyone else, eviction moratoriums are mandated at the state, city, or county level. To get your head around the rules of an eviction moratorium where you live, do your homework. Get the details on local ordinances, and stay informed of any updates.
It’s also a good idea to develop a basic understanding of your tenant rights. A good place to start is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website for state resources. You can also reach out to a local tenants’ rights association or non-profit housing group, or check out their websites. For example, if you live in San Francisco, there’s the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. Los Angelenos can reach out to the Housing Rights of Los Angeles. And New Yorkers can refer to the Met Council on Housing.
These organizations can answer basic questions on tenant rights, provide help with housing discrimination complaints, and offer landlord-tenant counseling. They can also help you stay informed about any updates to eviction moratoriums where you live, and point to additional resources to protect your tenant rights.
Ask your landlord to lower your rent
One thing to note about eviction moratoriums: They are temporary suspensions of rent, which means you must still pay once the moratorium ends. For example, if you weren’t able to cover rent for three months, you’ll generally be given a window of time to get current on your payments.
Remember: Landlords are humans, too. Try talking to your landlord to see if you can work out an arrangement to get caught up, says Brian Pendergraft, a real estate attorney in Greenbelt, Maryland. Be upfront and let your landlord know your situation.
For example, if you’ve lost half of your income, you might be able to pay half of your rent. Similarly, if you’ve been laid off and are waiting for unemployment benefits, you can negotiate paying a little more than your monthly rent once you start receiving benefits, or you find work again.
“As long as the eviction moratoriums are in place, tenants have a lot of leverage and negotiating power that they can use to delay or reduce payments,” Pendergraft says. “They just need to ensure that whatever they agree to is in writing, signed by both parties for it to be enforceable.”
Consider offering services in exchange
You can also see if your landlord would be open to a swap of sorts. Perhaps you can help maintain the property in exchange for reduced rent. You can offer to trim the hedges around the perimeter, clean the pool, or take the garbage cans out onto the street on trash day. That’s money your landlord will save by not paying someone to do basic outdoor maintenance.
One thing you shouldn’t barter rent for is building maintenance requests, as those duties should be the sole responsibility of the landlord. “It’s the landlord’s duty to make sure that they are providing livable spaces,” Pendergraft says.
What to do if you need to break your lease
The thought of getting kicked out of your place is scary enough. But what if you need to break your lease?
First, comb through the terms of your lease agreement to see if there’s anything that allows for early termination, says Pendergraft. Your lease agreement may include details on how much notice you’re required to give, what you’re responsible for should you need to break your lease, and any fees or penalties you might owe.
It may also have something called a ‘force majeure’ clause which could let you out of lease in the event of a disaster.
If you have Covid-19, or are part of the group of people whose lives may be endangered by the virus, such as those who are immunocompromised, and there’s reason to believe you or someone in your building has the virus, you could make a legal argument that you need to terminate your lease.
If there’s nothing in the lease that allows for early termination, you’ll need to get the landlord’s consent to get out of your lease early. “Due to the eviction moratoriums, landlords may very well be more inclined to allow for the early termination of their leases,” Pendergraft says. “While landlords don’t typically do that, it’s better for a landlord to have a vacancy they can fill with a paying tenant than a tenant that is unable to pay due to COVID-19.”
In turn, landlords might be more willing to sign early termination agreements. You’ll want to make sure you get it in writing.
If things get prickly, consult with a tenant rights association. If you can afford it, consult with a local tenant-landlord lawyer who practices in your state.
Trying to keep up with your bills can feel overwhelming during difficult times. Knowing the rules around eviction moratoriums where you live, and figuring out ways to lower your rent can help relieve the burden and stress.