40% of N.Y. Tenants May Not Pay Rent This Month. What Happens Then?

The true economic toll of all but shutting down New York City to stem the spread of the coronavirus is likely to become clearer on Wednesday when April rent is due. In just a month’s time, the lives of millions of New Yorkers have been turned upside down, many of them losing their jobs and…

The true economic toll of all but shutting down New York City to stem the spread of the coronavirus is likely to become clearer on Wednesday when April rent is due.

In just a month’s time, the lives of millions of New Yorkers have been turned upside down, many of them losing their jobs and now worrying about paying their bills.

“It’s gotten to this point where I really cannot pay rent because doing so would jeopardize my ability to buy food or basically survive,” said Henry True, 24, a musician and freelancer who pays $600 a month for a bedroom in a shared apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “I’m really just holding on to whatever penny I have.”

No one knows for sure how many renters in New York City will have a hard time paying, but landlords and the real estate industry say they are bracing for perhaps as many 40 percent of tenants, if not more, skipping their April payments.

There are about 5.4 million renters in the city, about two-thirds of the population. If a large share of them cannot make rent, landlords, especially smaller ones that operate on small margins, will be unable to pay their own bills, property owners said.

“I’m trying not to panic,” said Christopher Athineos, whose family owns nine apartment buildings in Brooklyn with about 150 tenants. “In my lifetime and even my parents’ and grandparents’ lifetime, we have never seen anything like this.”

From New York City to Los Angeles to Seattle, renters across the country have organized rent strikes in recent days, calling on elected officials to provide immediate financial relief to tenants and threatening to withhold payments to landlords.

The short answer: It depends.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has ordered a 90-day moratorium on evictions, a lifeline to people who cannot pay rent and are worried about losing their homes during the crisis. Other states have followed New York State’s lead, including California, which introduced a 60-day ban on evictions.

But that doesn’t wipe away that rent from having to be paid later on.

Both tenant advocates and property owner representatives said renters who have lost their jobs should ask their landlords whether they could pay a smaller portion of the rent or work out a payment plan.

“Landlords should be able to take a little less, and there should be forbearance until tenants get their jobs back,” said Judith Goldiner, head of the Legal Aid Society’s civil law reform unit. “If people can pay, they should.”

Lauren, an actor and teacher who rents an apartment in the Ocean Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, said she worked out a payment plan with her landlord for April rent. She will pay $500 of her $2,400 rent due on Wednesday and then at least $200 in May, she said.

“If New York is on pause, our rent must be too,” Lauren, who agreed to share her story only if her surname was withheld, wrote in an email. “I’m one of the lucky ones, with (tenuous) employment and an understanding landlord, and I am still struggling to find a way forward.”

The current economic crisis has all the ingredients to cause a collapse in the New York City real estate market, said Joseph Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 landlords in New York City.

A significant drop in April rent payments would create an immediate domino effect and leave many landlords without enough money to pay their water and sewer bills for their properties, he said.

Rent payments could drop even more drastically in May, Mr. Strasburg said, when tenants who lost jobs in March may have even less money to pay that month’s rent.

The largest annual bill for most property owners, real estate taxes, is due July 1. And property taxes make up about 30 percent of New York City’s revenue, which helps pay for basic city services.

“This will be devastating,” said Jay Martin, the executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, or CHIP, which represents about 4,000 landlords.

While the scope of the problem remains unclear, several recent surveys suggest a major crisis, though their methodology might not be rigorous.

A recent online survey by the website Property Nest found that roughly 39 percent of respondents said that they would be unable to pay rent if they lost their job during the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials at the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenants’ rights group, said an unscientific survey conducted of its members found that 77 percent of them would have a challenge paying rent in April, with 50 percent saying they could not pay it at all.

A survey from March 20 to 22 by the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy found that 36 percent of respondents had a family member who had lost a job during the pandemic. About 44 percent of respondents said they would have trouble making their next rent or mortgage payments.

Michael Owens, a barista at an Upper West Side coffee shop, said he and his girlfriend rented a car about two weeks ago and drove to her parents’ house in Emmet County, Mich., where they have stayed in quarantine. They are responsible for a $2,500-a-month lease on a one-bedroom apartment in Upper Manhattan.

He said he was applying for unemployment benefits to help pay the rent.

“We want to honor the commitment, and if I manage to get unemployment, I’d rather come out of this with a decent credit score and not bankrupt, so we’ll do our best,” Mr. Owens said. ”If I can’t pay it, I can’t pay it.”

While tenants will be protected for at least 90 days from eviction, landlords have not yet been provided similar protections. Mr. Cuomo has urged banks to waive mortgage payments for three months, but he does not have the authority to order them to do so.

Other bills, such as water and sewer, have not been postponed.

“The banks aren’t you going to let you off
the hook,” said Mr. Strasburg, adding that the federal government should require banks to provide relief on mortgage payments.

Some landlords have worked out payment plans with tenants, while others have said they cannot offer concessions because they face their own challenges.

Mr. Strasburg said landlords who have first-floor commercial tenants, such as restaurants, fear that those tenants too will not be paying rent in April. Landlord representatives said property owners also deserve a lifeline, including the option to defer utility payments and their property taxes.

“There is a burden of financial responsibility that will fall on someone,” Mr. Martin said. “It’s not fair to fall onto tenants or building owners.”

Mr. Cuomo has changed the due date for filing state income taxes to July 15 from April 15, mirroring a delay by President Trump on the deadline to file federal taxes. The delay could provide renters with more money for other debts.

In addition, New York City has extended financial assistance programs to property owners worried about paying their real estate taxes and is waiving some late fees on business taxes.

The $2 trillion federal stimulus bill offers assistance specifically for renters and homeowners, though they are limited in most cases to people with federally backed or supported mortgages.

For instance, landlords with a mortgage insured or guaranteed by the federal government cannot evict a tenant for nonpayment for at least the next four months.

The Real Estate Board of New York, the large trade association that represents developers, landlords and brokers, has created an online resource for its members on available federal and state assistance.

State lawmakers in New York have proposed a range of legislation to help renters and homeowners, including one bill that would suspend rent and mortgage payments for three months for some renters, property owners and small businesses.

Several borough presidents in New York City have proposed a plan to allow landlords to use their tenants’ security deposits as their April rent payment.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said on Tuesday that any financial aid to property owners, such as a suspension of mortgage payments, must be offered to renters too.

Just promising renters that they will not be evicted is not be enough, she said.

“You are creating a class and race issue, essentially rewarding and offering preferential treatment to landowners and folks that are more wealthy,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview on WNYC.

Jonah Engel Bromwich contributed reporting.

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