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Renters, landlords seek middle ground as tenants struggle with payments

The percentage of apartment dwellers paying rent is up this week. But many can't pay in full. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

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A majority of homeowners now have the option to postpone their mortgage payments for up to a year for COVID-19-related reasons. But what about renters?

Jessi Carrier shares a house in Berkeley, California, with several roommates. She’s lost 30% of her income as a tech industry recruiter due to the COVID-19 slowdown. So when it came time to pay her share of the rent this month, she had to make a decision.

“I did the calculations and figured out that I could pay $900 of my $1,275 a month,” she said. “I wrote a letter to the landlord, explaining my situation, told him what I could pay and said this is what I can pay moving forward.”

Now she’s just hoping for the best. Like a lot of cities, Berkeley has halted evictions for failure to pay rent, but landlords can get a waiver if they’re facing hardship.

“A lot of apartment owners are small businesses, and they have payrolls to meet, and they have mortgages, and they have utilities and taxes and insurance,” said Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, which represents landlords. “If they don’t get money coming in their way the stress then cascades throughout the system.”

Still, he said, some landlords are trying to meet tenants halfway, by waiving a month’s rent or spreading out payments.

The council reported this week that 84% of apartment dwellers had paid rent by April 12, an improvement from less than 70% earlier in the month. But that doesn’t mean they’re all paying in full.

Sarah Frier owns two rental buildings in Chicago and Austin, Texas. She was able to pause payments on one of her mortgages, so she lowered the rent for all her tenants, from an average of around $800 to $500.

“I know that they’re stuck at home, I know they’re not working at the bar, they’re not working at the shops they work at,” she said. “The last thing I wanted anyone to be doing was worrying about that.”

Frier also understands on a personal level. She rents the apartment she lives in in San Diego, California, and as a bathroom designer who can’t go into people’s houses right now, she’s unemployed.

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