'Too Much Uncertainty And No Income.' When Rent Comes Due During A Pandemic

A 'For Rent' sign is posted in front of an apartment building in Los Angeles. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With April 1 now here, millions of Californians are confronting a familiar ritual in unfamiliar times: paying rent.

About a third of Los Angeles renters were already spending half their income or more on housing alone — and that was before many lost their income in the wake of coronavirus-related business closures.

Some are weighing rent versus food. Meanwhile, many landlords are in their own financial bind.

'THERE'S NO ANSWER FOR ANYBODY RIGHT NOW'

Studio City renter Juliette Zimmerman works as a hairdresser. She started losing work early on.

She said business "was already slowing down the minute the coronavirus was on the news and making headlines."

Then, government leaders ordered non-essential businesses to close. So her salon shut down.

"It has completely stopped any income," she said.

Like many workers in L.A., Zimmerman lives paycheck-to-paycheck. At this point, she doesn't have the money to cover her rent in April.

She applied for unemployment insurance through the state's Employment Development Department on March 17, but still hasn't heard back. Since then, she's had discussions with her landlord about making partial payments. But she's not sure what she can even afford right now.

She said she didn't want to take what's left in her account and put it toward rent, because she might need that money for food in the weeks to come.

Zimmerman hopes to come up with a long-term repayment plan. But for now, she can't tell her landlord exactly when she'll be able to catch up.

"It's just a lot of stress on top of too much uncertainty and no income," Zimmerman said. "There's no definitive answer I could give. Because there's no answer for anybody right now."

SMALL LANDLORDS WORRY MISSED RENT 'WILL JUST BE GONE'

"I want to be as forgiving as possible," Zimmerman's landlord, Gary Dean Ruebsamen, said. "But, you know, there's no such thing as free rent."

Ruebsamen is a small landlord. He owns the four-unit building where Zimmerman lives, plus one other single-family rental home. He said he and his wife treat the property as basically their retirement plan.

They still have a mortgage on the apartment building. And they need the rent to cover the monthly payments.

"Rent is crazy important," Ruebsamen said. "Especially right now when my other main source of income looks like it's gone away."

As a real estate agent, Ruebsamen's job is also pretty much on hold. He can't do any in-person showings. He's not opening any escrow accounts. For April, he plans to dip into his own savings to cover the mortgage.

"I'm going to pay my bills as long as I can, and I will do whatever it takes to pay my bills," he said.

He could reach out to his mortgage lender to ask about delaying payments. Banks in California have agreed to a 90-day grace period for mortgage borrowers hit by economic fallout from the coronavirus.

But Ruebsamen worries about what could happen if his tenants can't pay for months on end.

He said, "For this month, what I'm saying to my tenants like Juliette is, pay what you can, and try not to get too far behind in rent. Because it's going to be really tough to recover once you get past this."

His experience tells him that if tenants get too deep in debt, they'll just leave.

"I'm not a corporation with staff attorneys that can go after and recover that money in the future," he said. "It will just be gone."

SOME LANDLORDS SAY RENT IS STILL 'DUE IN FULL'

While some L.A. landlords, like Ruebsamen, are trying to work out a plan with their tenants, others have not been so accommodating.

Renters have sent LAist some of the letters they're getting from their landlords. In some cases, landlords are telling their tenants rent is still due, in full, on the first of the month, without exceptions.

One letter dated March 25 from Newport Beach-based Hilbert Property Management tells tenants in Pasadena, "Unfortunately, there has been misinformation circulating online and in the media about what the current COVID-19 crisis means for those who rent their homes."

The letter goes on to read, "At the outset, please know that no rents are being waved and your rent obligations per your rental agreement are due in full and as scheduled." Tenants affected by business closures are urged to "take advantage of any public assistance available to you."

LAist's calls to Hilbert Property Management were not returned.

Often, these letters don't mention eviction moratoriums passed at the local or state level for Californians who can't pay because of coronavirus-related hardship.

Hilbert's letter did not make reference to Pasadena's local eviction moratorium, passed on March 17, which bans late fees for missed rent payments and gives qualifying tenants up to six months to repay their back rent after the coronavirus crisis ends.

Those moratoriums aim to keep people who've lost work in their homes. But, they put the burden of proof on renters to show that their income was lost due to the coronavirus.

Chancela Al-Mansour with the L.A.-based Housing Rights Center said renters need to be proactive about their rights — even when their landlords are sending them misleading information.

She said if tenants affected by the coronavirus think they won't be able to make rent this month, "Immediately notify your landlord in writing that you need additional time to pay rent — that you won't be able to pay the rent — because you have lost income because of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Al-Monsour also advises tenants to hold on to documents — like texts, emails or receipts — showing that their income has been affected by the coronavirus crisis.

The new eviction rules do not forgive tenants of their obligation to pay rent. They still require repayment in the future. Qualifying renters in the city of L.A will have 12 months to get caught up.

But some housing advocates say the repayment rules mean that certain tenants won't actually be protected from eviction.

"It really just delays the eviction process," said Al-Mansour.

WHO ULTIMATELY TAKES THE FINANCIAL HIT?

Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, said if a prolonged crisis puts tenants in a situation where they simply can't pay back their missed rent, someone is ultimately going to take a financial hit.

"This is why we need to think carefully about how we help everybody in this crisis," Green said.

"Giving households money to help them pay the rent helps a lot. But for some of these small owners, if this lasts more than a couple of months, we're going to have to think about what policies we can use to help them out. I really don't have a good idea for that at the moment," he said.

More than a million Californians have already filed for unemployment. Missed rent payments could be widespread. Green said we could soon find out just how widespread.