Landlords, tenants, advocates worry about rent during coronavirus

2020-04-21 | Albert Lea Tribune (Minn.)

April 21-- Apr. 21--Property owners, renters and tenant advocates across the Capital Region are worried about what skyrocketing unemployment will do to New Yorkers' living arrangements.

At the United Tenants of Albany, the staff is hearing from renters who were already struggling to pay their rent and have now lost their jobs. Executive Director Laura Felts said she intervened in an illegal eviction when a landlord boarded up a tenant's door to keep him out of his apartment after the eviction moratorium was put in place March 16.

"We are extremely concerned about the eviction landscape when courts reopen and warrants go live again," Felts said.

The UTA has an emergency fund designed to give one-time grants to renters at risk of losing their housing. The state and federal government sets the rules about who is eligible for the money. There is now a waiting list for the grants, Felts said.

Most of the calls to the UTA staff come from tenants whose landlords will not fix problems with the apartment, Felts said. She's heard about sewage being backed up and mold growth -- both harder to live with during the stay-home order in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Patricia Mccauslin, who lives along Clinton Avenue, Albany, said she has been served with an eviction order after repeatedly asking her landlord to fix plumbing problems in her apartment. Mccauslin, 64, said she signed a month-to-month lease with the property owner six months ago for the one-bedroom apartment. She was paying $600 a month, but when water from leaking pipes started penetrating the walls and ceilings, the landlord dropped the rent to $500. The last she heard from her landlord, Mccauslin said, he told her he can't afford to make repairs to the apartment.

The landlord, Ronnie Xianrong, said he asked Mccauslin to hire a plumber herself and he will pay her back when he returns to Albany from Florida, or she can take the cost out of her rent. He said he has not tried to evict her.

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Mccauslin, a widow, said she is the caretaker for her roommate, who suffered a stroke. They are both on fixed incomes, she said. Mccauslin paid the rent in February, but withheld rent for March and April. Mccauslin is afraid to go out because she has upper respiratory problems, but she is looking for a new apartment. She is relying on Meals on Wheels and the food pantry for food, she said.

The leadership of Under One Roof is also worried about a wave of evictions. The organization is a coalition founded by the New York Capital Region Apartment Association in response to the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019. Jaime Michelle Cain, a real estate lawyer who advises Under One Roof, said calls for rent strikes have left renters misinformed. Despite calls for rent suspension in New York, the terms of each renters' lease are still in place. If you don't pay rent for the duration of the eviction moratorium put in place March 16 and scheduled to end in mid-June, your landlord will have the right to evict you, Cain said.

"This is not about landlords collecting rent to put in their pockets," Cain said. "They need to pay taxes, which are not under a moratorium, pay their employees and utilities. When a rent strike is proposed it jeopardizes the whole structure."

Deborah Pusatere, president of the apartment association and a leader of Under One Roof, said 40 percent of her tenants didn't pay their rent in April. Pusatere owns DeKita LLC and has 63 units, almost entirely in Albany, currently occupied by renters. Of the 25 who didn't pay, 13 still owed rent from March, she said.

"Of those, 10 refused to pay because they know I can't evict them," she said. Pusatere said she had an $18,000 tax bill due April 1. She had to borrow money to pay it.

Landlords were not eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program, and insurance policies written for business disruption do not pay out when tenants can't pay their rent. The policies only cover physical damage to the property, said Jesse Holland, president and founder of Sunrise Management and Consulting, which has 1,500 residential tenants.

In Troy, property owner Emily Menn vented on Facebook on March 29, after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-Bronx, put out a call to "cancel rent." Ocasio-Cortez is one of several co-sponsors of legislation proposed Friday by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) calling for rent and mortgage payments to be canceled nationwide amid the pandemic, as well as the creation of a relief fund for landlords and mortgage collectors.

"I'm sick of being physically and financially threatened," Menn wrote on Facebook. "Come April 1st, if you can afford to pay your rent, pay your rent. If you can't, you should have talked to your landlord by now. If you're posting rent strike propaganda, unfriend me [because] I'm about to unfriend you."

Menn is the managing partner of Devil's Hole Ranch Properties, which owns 67 units in 10 buildings in Troy. Rent ranges from $750 for one-bedroom apartments to $1,600 for bigger units.

In her post, Menn explained how she spends the money when her tenants pay rent -- 25 percent to mortgage, the rest to taxes, maintenance, insurance, staff and contractors -- before she pays herself. The state-ordered moratorium on evictions -- in place until mid-June -- was "absolutely appropriate," Menn wrote and she condemned landlords who evict tenants illegally. But she was seeing far too many posts on social media about guillotining landlords, Menn wrote, and it's just not funny.

Speaking by phone a day later, Menn said the post was too emotional, born of frustration and fear.

"When you run a small business you always worry about money," she said. "I'm also worried about the mental health of my tenants and about them losing their jobs. I'm worried the physical safety of both myself and my maintenance crew and about my tenants getting COVID-19."

Bigger landlords are in a similar position. Holland, of Sunrise Management and Consulting, said all of Sunrise's tenants are affected in some way, even if it's just the stress of an unprecedented crisis.

"Where they are in the financial picture makes a difference. We know some people are having a much harder time than others," Holland said. "The toughest time we're having is with the people who won't talk to us. In this situation there's nothing to be embarrassed about and people will need help."

Menn urged tenants who think they can't pay their rent to reach out to their landlords and make arrangements for payment plans or discuss exchanging work for rent.

"If someone has a set of skills I can put to use, I'm always going to do it," Menn said.

The American Small Manufacturers Coalition (ASMC) is a trade association of manufacturing extension agents working to improve the innovation and productivity of America’s manufacturing community.