Stuck at home, stuck with the rent

Whittier resident Scout Ober and their roommates paid partial rent in April.

At a Whittier apartment off the Midtown Greenway, two roommates lost work and can’t pay the full $1,750 rent. A third roommate, Scout Ober, has started a bittersweet temp job processing home mortgage loans, imagining a system where student loans wouldn’t stop Ober from buying a small house of their own.

“We’re taking it week by week,” Ober said, adding that the landlord has been flexible so far. 

Ober has gauged friends’ interest in a rent strike, drafted letter templates asking for a rent freeze and chipped in a few dollars for a struggling neighbor. 

“How does our lease document hold up against the catastrophe that’s happening now?” Ober asked.

Ober’s landlord, Morgan Luzier, is also brainstorming. Two of her renters in the food service industry have signed new leases, agreeing to pay half the rent now and the balance later. She offered to help her tenants find side hustles for extra money and personally hired one person. She’s paying her CPA to help with tenants’ aid applications. And she’s applying for a small business Economic Injury Disaster Loan. As a first-generation business, Luzier said she has cash reserves to last about three months, then ultimately she will have to work with her bank.  

“It can’t be an us versus them relationship. It has to be we’re in it together. Nobody is going to walk away completely whole,” Luzier said. 

Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order remains until at least May 4, and a moratorium on evictions stands until at least May 13, the current duration of the peacetime emergency. Minneapolis cases of COVID-19 numbered 192 as of April 16. 

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has said that while the executive order suspends evictions, rent is still due. 

“This order protects families who have lost their jobs or had their hours cut during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not an excuse not to pay rent: if you can pay, you should, but if you can’t because of the pandemic, you’re protected during the emergency,” Ellison said in a statement. “The order also protects all Minnesotans, because everyone’s health and safety is at risk if families are made homeless right now.”

Since the order began, some Minnesota landlords have barely registered a change in payment, while others have seen a jump to 25% nonpayment, according to a recent survey of 28,000 units by the Minnesota Multi Housing Association. The most notable increases were in older Class B and C properties. In Class C apartments, the metro’s most common building class, typically more than 30 years old with the least expensive rents, late and non-payments increased from 9% to 15% between March and April.

A Whittier resident, requesting not to print his name, said he hopes his federal stimulus check arrives in time to help cover next month’s rent.

Market-rate landlords in Minnesota normally collect about $640 million per month and see $48 million in late payments. As of April 6, the association estimates an additional $33 million outstanding, describing “a noticeable increase but not dire as we believe much of that rent will still arrive.” 

Depending on the timing of federal and state resources, May and June rent collections could be very challenging, the association said. The association has supported calls for rental assistance while urging people to sign up for unemployment benefits and continue paying rent. 

Under the federal CARES Act, landlords with federal subsidies or federally backed mortgages cannot attempt to evict tenants for 120 days or charge late penalties. 

Council President Lisa Bender has expressed disappointment that the state legislature did not pass a $100 million housing assistance proposal and told the City Council she’s hopeful the next round of funds will include rental aid.

Council Member Jeremiah Ellison wrote a letter April 6 urging Walz to suspend rent and mortgage payments and stop commercial evictions. The letter was signed by Bender and Council Members Alondra Cano, Phillipe Cunningham, Steve Fletcher, Cam Gordon, Andrea Jenkins, Jeremy Schroeder, and Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley. 

“Even with unemployment insurance, families already spending so much of their income on housing will not be able to cover their basic needs,” Ellison wrote.

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar wants to cancel nationwide rent and home mortgage payments through the duration of the pandemic. Under the proposal announced April 17, the federal government would cover losses for landlords and mortgage holders. In exchange, landlords must agree to five years of “fair renting and lending practices,” including a rent freeze, 10% equity for tenants and no admission restrictions for credit or criminal history. Omar also proposed additional funding for nonprofits and other entities to create more affordable housing.
“In 2008, we had an opportunity to bail out Wall Street. This time we need to bail out the American people who are suffering,” Omar said in a press conference.

Drivers honked and waved signs April 8 during a downtown rally to cancel rent near US Bank Plaza, hosted by United Renters for Justice – InquilinXs UnidXs por Justicia, Jewish Community Action, OutFront Minnesota, TakeAction Minnesota and CTUL. 

“After losing one of my jobs, and not qualifying for any assistance or unemployment, it became clear that I simply could not pay my rent,” said Vanessa Del Campo Chacon in a press statement, a member of Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia. “My neighbors and I are struggling, and our priority has to be to survive this pandemic, not to make rent.”

Blois Olson, a spokesman for the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, said calls for a rent strike are “extreme,” not mainstream, views. 

Association Board Chair Bernadette Hornig said that Hornig Companies, which owns apartments throughout Southwest Minneapolis, is offering flexibility for renters to pay what they can, when they can, without worrying about late fees. Communication is key, she said, and she wouldn’t expect people to be paid up immediately when the eviction moratorium is lifted. 

“Our goal is to help people stay as current on their rent as they possibly can, just so that they don’t get too far behind. If they are back to work, then they’re not faced with a big bill,” she said. “We don’t want anybody to lose their housing as a result of following the governor’s and federal direction.”

Case-by-case, pay-what-you-can agreements are coming into place for 12,000 residents of Aeon, a nonprofit housing group that recently acquired apartments in the Whittier and Lyndale neighborhoods. Aeon’s nonpayment rate is currently 9.5%, and it varies by building, said President Alan Arthur. Section 8 voucher holders should be fine, he said, but some residents aren’t eligible for unemployment due to immigration and other reasons. 

Immigrants are eligible for unemployment if they are permanent residents or have work visas or work permits. Federal stimulus checks are based on the most recent tax returns, and spouses filing jointly and their dependents must all have social security numbers, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

Renters at one property alone have more than 100 payment plans, Arthur said, referencing an 834-unit property. 

Aeon, in turn, can ask for three months of mortgage forbearance from its lenders. 

“They also expect us to catch up at some point,” Arthur said. “There is no free lunch.”

As part of the Minnesota Homeownership Center, advisors at PRG Inc. and CLUES are taking calls from people worried about their mortgages. Homeowners can talk to their lenders and delay monthly payments without late fees under loans owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Any delayed payments still need to be made eventually, however.

“We know that loan modifications are already happening through the mortgage industry right now,” Mayor Jacob Frey said at a recent council meeting. “We want to make sure that people who own a home, who are perhaps under stress because of a loss of job, have the right contacts so they can get those necessary loan modifications, they can stay in their homes, and hopefully we do not see another foreclosure crisis like we did in 2008, 2009.”

Open since January, Hennepin County’s Tenant Resource Center aims to serve as a one-stop-shop for people in a housing crisis at 612-302-3180. A single call connects people to legal help, emergency cash or mediation with a landlord.

The center is an entry point to access $2 million in new Minneapolis aid to residents affected by COVID-19. Money for rent or utility payments is targeted for people who aren’t eligible for other assistance, regardless of immigration status, and earn under $21,000 for a single person or $30,000 for a family of four. Rental assistance for most families would max out at $1,500. The city will take applications starting at 9 a.m. Wednesday, April 22 through noon on Monday, April 27. For more information, visit minneapolismn.gov/coronavirus/gap-funding.

An additional $1 million in emergency cash is available through the expanded Stable Homes Stable Schools program for low-income families enrolled in one of Minneapolis Public Schools’ 39 elementary schools.  

Hennepin County also has year-round emergency cash for rent, but the pool of money is limited.

“Even before COVID-19 happened, there was not enough emergency assistance for people facing a housing crisis. There is never enough each month,” said Dawn Zugay, interim co-executive director of the Conflict Resolution Center in the Wedge. 

As a mediator, Zugay expects to handle more remote mediation sessions between renters and landlords while the courts are closed. “There aren’t a lot of other alternatives right now and everybody’s facing a crisis,” she said. 

She’s hearing from renters who can’t pay rent and landlords who can’t pay the mortgage.

“There’s a lot of desperation on both sides,” she said.

Staff at Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio (CLUES), which primarily serves Latino families, said they’re hearing many concerns about food and housing. Families barely able to make the current rent payment are worried about next month’s payment, said Alice Rubin De Celis, housing services coordinator. She advises residents to ask for help now and contact landlords and lenders immediately. CLUES is taking calls at 651-768-0000.

A homeowner facing hardship due to COVID-19 with a federally backed mortgage can ask for at least six months of forbearance without penalty, and the servicer cannot undertake a foreclosure for 60 days (until mid-May).

Ukasha Dakane works at Karmel Mall, where he sees more than 200 shuttered Somali-owned businesses. Business owners who derived a living from the shops often aren’t qualifying for unemployment and are struggling to make rent, he said. As founder of the Fortune Relief And Youth Empowerment Organization, he’s created a network of volunteers to donate and deliver face masks and halal food. 

“That’s the only hope we have right now,” he said.

Ukasha Dakane. Submitted photo

The volunteers discovered one family of eight children eating once per day. Dakane said he’s nervous as Ramadan approaches, when families begin to fast. He can’t imagine what would happen if the mall is closed for months. 

Alex Rausch, a booker and bartender at Part Wolf, shared employee Venmo names on social media, noting that their bills and rent are still expected to be paid on time. Occasionally she wakes up to find that regulars deposited a few dollars in her account. Making meals at home, not going out, it’s easier to not spend money, she said. “As for now, we’re still making it by,” Rausch said.

Ober wants to see more conversation about what will happen when the stay-at-home order is lifted. 

“Once you lose housing, it’s pretty much impossible to get back in,” Ober said. 

For the moment, Ober is focused on health. 

“I think I’m not panicking, because there’s just so much to worry about,” Ober said. “I’m not going to worry about housing until I have to.”

Visit minneapolismn.gov/coronavirus/housing-coronavirus for information on local housing resources.