At the end of April, Joe Abraham is typically focused on resurfacing parking lots, replacing roofs and undertaking other summertime projects at his Twin Cities apartment buildings. This year, his days are packed with calls and e-mails to tenants who aren’t sure how they’ll pay their May rent.
“It’s hand-to-hand combat,” Abraham said. “We’re out there managing each situation one by one.”
As unemployment claims soar and rents come due for the second time since a statewide stay-at-home order began, Abraham and other rental property owners in the Twin Cities have taken on a new role: financial coach. Housing advocates are working hard as well, to make sure that renters are tapping into a confusing array of unemployment benefits and financial assistance aimed at preventing a housing catastrophe for renters and their landlords alike. With an eviction ban in place until May 13 when the governor’s peacetime emergency is slated to end and calls for rent strikes in some areas, the multi-housing industry in the Twin Cities has taken an unprecedented role in ensuring that renters take advantage of every financial option that’s available.
And in this economic downturn, there are more options than ever for cash-strapped renters, including expanded unemployment benefits and $1,200 cash payments that are enough to pay a month’s rent in every one of Abraham’s apartments.
“I’ve learned a lot about how the system works,” he said. “But a handful of people slip through the cracks.”
Ali Torrez and her husband weren’t able to afford to pay their $1,500 rent for their south Minneapolis apartment in April, and May isn’t looking much better. After her husband lost his construction job, Torrez said through an interpreter with Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia (United Renters for Justice), they’ve been focused on caring for their children and keeping them fed.
Their landlord, she said, has repeatedly asked when they’ll pay their late rent and encouraged them to see if they’re eligible for the federal stimulus payments. Last week she became one of the nearly 8,000 applicants for a new rental assistance program in Minneapolis. She is still waiting to see if they qualify.
“We’re really in this hard situation as many families are right now with almost being completely without work, and we need to prioritize our safety and our needs in this moment,” Torrez said. “We want to pay rent in May and we’ve been trying to figure out how to pay rent in May, but we’re not sure we’re going to be able to.”
States and cities are working to fast-track various rental assistance and eviction prevention programs and it’s important for tenants to find out what help is available to them, said Corianne Scally, a senior housing researcher with the Urban Institute. Scally said that while landlords can be demonized for demanding rent, they also have bills to pay to keep their property in livable condition.
“More than half of all rental units are owned by individual owners, kind of small mom-and-pop establishments, that might operate on narrow profit margins. … We need those landlords to stay open,” Scally said. “We were already experiencing a supply shortage before the pandemic. I’m afraid that shortage is getting worse, particularly at the lower income spectrum.”
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D.-Minn., said during a news conference call with other elected officials that “families are struggling” and she predicts even more people will be unable to pay May rent. In April she introduced a bill that would cancel rent and mortgage payments while also creating relief measures for landlords and lenders.
“We constantly invest in bailing out Wall Street, we constantly invest in trying to save big corporations, this is the time where we should invest in saving American people,” Omar said. “Lives and livelihoods of people are at risk, and we have to do everything we can in order to be able to take care of them.”
During the Great Recession of 2008, which was triggered by the collapse of the mortgage industry, the focus was on reducing foreclosures and keeping people in their homes. But the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented attention to renters and making sure they and others have access to expanded unemployment benefits for at least the next several months.
Jonathan Holtzman is a Michigan-based property owner who developed and owns more than 500 rentals in Minneapolis, including a new mid-rise building downtown. At the outset of the pandemic, Holtzman instructed all staff to make personal contact with every resident to assess their financial situation.
“We don’t want them to move out, and they don’t want to move out,” he said.
Following recommendations made early last month by the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, he and other property owners and managers have frozen rent increases and won’t assess late payments.
“We intend to work with each of the existing renters and try to understand their situation,” he said.
Abraham, who co-owns and manages about 750 rentals in the Twin Cities, said his high-contact strategy has been successful so far. His April rent collections were typical, with 80 to 85% of his renters paying on time. He expects May to be a little worse, and he is dreading what will happen in June.
That’s why he’s become a counselor to many residents, including some who are navigating a financial crisis for the first time. That includes referrals to emergency assistance, food shelves and suggestions on how to navigate an increasingly complex — and overwhelmed — unemployment benefit system.
Abraham said the situation is especially acute for the increasing number of people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental problems.
“They’re running into barriers everywhere they go as they try to resolve this,” said Abraham. “It’s a balancing act, and we’re doing our best because it’s in everyone’s interest to navigate this together.”