What to Do if You Can't Pay Rent Because of Coronavirus

A step-by-step guide for dealing with your landlord during the worst economic catastrophe in living memory.
April 9, 2020, 2:26pm
The back of a T-shirt reading, "Because the rent won't wait"
A demonstrator at a rally for striking airline workers in Virginia in 2019. Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty

The beginning of April marked a new phase in the coronavirus crisis, as the rent came due for millions of tenants who have lost work because of the countrywide economic shutdown and could not pay. According to a recent survey from a landlord trade group, only 69 percent of tenants paid any rent at all in the first week of April, down from 81 percent who paid in the first week of March and 82 percent in April 2019. Another survey, this one from the real estate website Apartment List, found that a quarter of Americans weren't able to make their mortgage or rent payments in full this month.


"It was bad before the pandemic started," said Solomon Greene, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a think tank. "We've seen renters facing greater cost burdens incrementally over the years as housing costs have gone up and wages have essentially stagnated." The economic catastrophe caused by COVID-19 has just made everything worse.

More than 16 million Americans applied for unemployment in the past month, and with many businesses likely to remain shuttered for weeks, it's likely that there are millions of laid-off workers who were able to pay rent in April but are looking at May 1 with dread. If you're in a situation where you can't pay rent due to COVID-19, and your landlord is breathing down your neck, what should you do? Here's a step by step guide that runs through your options:

Step 0: Don't make any partial rent payments without coming to an agreement with your landlord!

Though laws vary by state, in at least some places (including California), paying part of what you owe may not normally prevent you from being evicted. You should come to an agreement with your landlord before you attempt to pay partial rent.

Step 1: Reach out to your landlord

Any reasonable landlord knows that people are going to have a hard time making rent. A few have even waived payments for April in recognition of that fact, and while your landlord is not likely among them, they might accept partial payment or agree to set up a payment plan. That conversation should be started as soon as possible.

"Say, 'Dear landlord, I lost my job. And I'm applying for unemployment, but I don't have any money right now… If you'd like, I can get you documentation and I would like to set up a time to talk with you to figure out a solution to this dilemma,'" said John Bartlett, the executive director of Chicago's Metropolitan Tenants Organization.


(Documentation of you having lost your job due to the coronavirus may be important—some landlords, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, are suspicious that renters who can pay are using this crisis as an excuse not to pay rent.)

There's no way to hide from your landlord—you should reach out now if you think you're going to have a problem making rent by May 1, and you shouldn't avoid talking to your landlord if you haven't been able to pay for April.

Maybe your landlord will be reasonable and understanding. But some landlords have taken advantage of this crisis, Bartlett said. He's heard of landlords shutting off utilities if tenants aren't paying—which is almost certainly illegal everywhere, Bartlett said—and of landlords asking tenants whose leases are up for renewal but don't want to renew for an entire year, to pay extra rent. (In that situation, you may not have any legal recourse if your unit isn't rent-controlled.) In any case, talking to your landlord is a necessary first move.

Step 2: Realize you have some leverage

In ordinary times, asking your landlord for a break might not bear any fruit. But the pandemic has created problems for landlords too.

The usual threat landlords wield is eviction. But the CARES Act, the piece of emergency legislation passed by Congress, placed a moratorium on evictions if you live in a building that's received federal financing. Additionally, many cities and states have halted all evictions—the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project has created a frequently-updated map of places that have put emergency tenant protections in place.


"People should remember they're not alone. Remember that millions of people around this country are going through the same thing," said Lupe Arreola, the executive director of Tenants Together, a California coalition of tenant organizations. "They should first get informed about what their rights are before they engage with their landlord just so that they know what kind of protections are in place for them."

Even if your landlord could immediately evict you, filling an empty apartment would be more difficult than usual. It's hard to show prospective renters apartments when everyone is ordered to stay in their homes, and the economic collapse means that fewer people are likely to be able to afford to move. Those factors may pressure your landlord to agree to accept partial rent and get something rather than nothing.

"Landlords, for the most part, will want to keep you in your home and offer realistic, viable concessions," Greene said.

Step 3: Put down any agreement you have in writing

If your landlord does agree to some kind of payment plan, make sure that the precise terms are documented and signed off on by both you and your landlord. This should include how much your modified rent will be, how long that change in rent will last, and whether you will be expected to pay back any deferred payments. Just as you would before signing a lease, you should consider whether this payment plan is realistic.

"If landlords are willing to say, well, we'll take a partial payment now, but I expect you to pay it all back, the tenant really needs to figure out if that's gonna be something they can do," Bartlett said. "If they're not going to be able to do that, I would recommend that they not sign an agreement because they're going to end up in eviction court sooner or later anyway, and you might as well save up your money so that you can move."

Step 4: Know your rights

If your landlord is being hostile and unreasonable, you should know what rights you have as a renter. The laws are different from city to city and state to state; the best thing to do is google something like "tenants rights (NAME OF YOUR TOWN)" and find a local organization to connect with. The Metropolitan Tenants Organization, for instance, has a hotline and other resources for people in Chicago.

Emergency eviction protections may allow you to stay in your home in the short term, but that does not mean you are safe. Many landlords around the country are still likely to kick out tenants who aren't paying as soon as they can. It's important to keep up to date on what measures your public officials have taken. Local tenants rights organizations may be able to help with that if you get in touch, and many of these groups are campaigning right now for enhanced protections, freezes on rent increases, or a rent and mortgage payment holiday.

Step 5: Wait for help

You may qualify for a stimulus payment of up to $1,200, and if you lost your job, you may also get unemployment benefits, which Congress has boosted in response to the crisis. But it's unclear when everyone will get that money, and if you remain unemployed or underemployed for months you likely will need more assistance than is being offered.

If you are truly desperate, food banks may help, though they are under strain. You can also seek out mutual aid groups, where strangers provide assistance to those in need. (You can find some in your area on Facebook.)

Some cities are also moving to create local programs to help tenants make rent payments, though these probably aren't yet sufficient to the scale of the problem. When Chicago announced this week it would give out 2,000 grants of $1,000 apiece to help renters, the city was inundated with 83,000 applications. That shows just how badly people are starved for help.

"We don't know how long it's going to take for people to be able to get back to work or to be able to make enough money to get back into a stable economic position," said Arreola. "There needs to be an understanding, not just by landlords but also by tenants and our government, that life is not going to go back to normal the day after a shelter in place order is lifted. We are grappling right now with the full stop of our economic system."

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