What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How missed rent payments spark a ‘cascade’ of financial hardship

Many Americans affected by the coronavirus pandemic are struggling to pay their rent when they have lost income and haven’t yet been able to secure unemployment money. Missed rent, in turn, adds up to landlords who can’t pay their mortgages or property tax. And then cities and states will struggle to provide the basic services that tax payments fund. Paul Solman reports on this “looming cascade.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One immediate problem that millions of Americans are facing is making their rent, as you just heard, or mortgage payment. Nearly a third of people who rented an apartment didn't pay any of their rent — any of their rent — during the first week of April, according to one analysis.

    A separate poll found about half of small businesses have not paid their full rent or mortgage yet either.

    Paul Solman looks at the problems renters and landlords are facing.

    It's part of his reporting for Making Sense.

  • Eunice Bae:

    Come on. Do a session with me.

  • Paul Solman:

    Eunice Bae is an actress, sporadic short-term gigs, monthly Manhattan rent.

  • Eunice Bae:

    Dude!

    I wasn't making a lot of money this winter, and I actually fell behind on rent one month.

  • Paul Solman:

    And then along came COVID-19.

  • Eunice Bae:

    I was actually doing well enough this first quarter that I was on the path to finally being able to pay off that missing month, and then the virus hit, and then everything went away.

  • Paul Solman:

    With theaters dark everywhere in the country, work nonexistent, Bae quickly called unemployment insurance.

  • Eunice Bae:

    I am one of the lucky few that I got through to unemployment on Monday, after 389 calling attempts. Every time I hit the green button, I made a tally mark.

    And from what I hear, that's a success story.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    But successfully filing is another matter entirely.

  • Eunice Bae:

    You need to stipulate each employer, their federal employer identification number and your last day of working. As a gig worker, I had, I think, 11 employers in the last 18 months.

    But for the work I did this quarter, I haven't gotten any paperwork from them yet, because it's not the end of the year. I don't know if I have been approved. I don't know if I'm eligible. I don't know how much I will be getting, or when, if at all.

  • Paul Solman:

    Bae's is the plight of tenants everywhere in this country right now.

  • Mario Salerno:

    Would you like a doughnut?

  • Paul Solman:

    So much so that Brooklyn landlord Mario Salerno, who also runs a sizable auto repair business, has become a New York hero and local media celebrity for waiving the April rent for his 200 or so tenants.

  • Mario Salerno:

    I had tenants that said they can't work, they didn't have money to pay me. I says, don't worry about paying me. Worry about your neighbor. Worry about your family.

  • Paul Solman:

    But fellow Brooklyn landlord Chris Athineos, nine buildings, 150 units, says he can't afford such largess.

  • Chris Athineos:

    My oldest building was built in 1850, when, I think, Millard Fillmore was president of the United States. We have facades that need to be maintained, roofs, plumbing, electrical. It never ends.

  • Paul Solman:

    Not to mention utilities, staff salaries, and the largest obligation of all:

  • Chris Athineos:

    Our mortgage payment, which includes an escrow amount for our real estate taxes.

    I do fear, if there's a big drop off in rent collection, people are not working, can't pay rent, then how will I pay the mortgage?

  • Paul Solman:

    Jan Lee's family has owned two buildings in Manhattan's Chinatown for nearly a century. But the 22 apartments are rent-stabilized, a form of semi-rent control. So his three commercial properties subsidize the residential tenants, he says.

  • Jan Lee:

    And the cosmetic store closed even before the lockdown happened, because she also did facials. And, obviously, this close, intimate contact, of course, nobody would want to come. And she didn't want to do them either.

  • Paul Solman:

    His other two commercial leases are for restaurants, one of them, Hop Kee, a Chinatown landmark for over 50 years.

  • Peter Lee:

    Well, the situation leaves a lot of people with no choice but to close up.

  • Paul Solman:

    So will Jan Lee's commercial tenants keep paying their rent?

  • Jan Lee:

    I only received rent from one of my commercial tenants, and I don't think I will receive any rent for the for the month of May.

  • Paul Solman:

    And if he can't pay his real estate taxes on July 1?

  • Jan Lee:

    There's an automatic lien on your property. That lien is sold to a third party, companies that purchase liens. And it's up to them to charge whatever they want for the interest. And it's always in double digits. It's way more than your — your worst credit card.

  • Paul Solman:

    Double digits?

  • Jan Lee:

    Oh, absolutely. You're looking at a potential foreclosure very, very, very quickly of small property owners.

  • Paul Solman:

    George Sweeting of the city's Independent Budget Office says foreclosure could take awhile. But that still leaves the big question.

    Is the city going to cut small landlords some slack on their taxes?

  • George Sweeting:

    It may decide to do that. But, when it does that, it has to think about where the money will come from to make up the lost property tax revenue.

    The city needs that property tax revenue to do its basic services, teach kids, pay the police, pay the fire, pay the sanitation. And right now, there's not evidence that the federal government, with all of its stimulus programs, is actually going to deliver much assistance to local governments.

  • Paul Solman:

    Meanwhile, an online movement has started in New York and elsewhere: #cancelrent.

  • Nicolas Retsinas:

    That can lead to unraveling of property tax revenues, of insurance proceeds, of utility bills.

  • Paul Solman:

    New York state has put a 90-day moratorium on evictions.

  • Governor Andrew Cuomo:

    I want to protect the people of the state of New York as much as I can.

  • Paul Solman:

    But, says housing economist Nicolas Retsinas, if tenants use that as a reason to stop paying rent:

  • Nicolas Retsinas:

    I wouldn't call a ticking time bomb, but it's certainly, I think, a loud alarm clock that says, in 90 to 120 days, all of a sudden, these rents will become due.

    And these people are still unemployed, waiting in an unemployment line, getting unemployment insurance, they're not going to be able to pay their rent, and the alarm will go off.

  • Paul Solman:

    OK, for Eunice Bae, the theater industry is moribund. And looking ahead:

  • Eunice Bae:

    There's a lot more people out of work competing for a very finite amount of jobs, and maybe even less jobs than before, because some theaters may not be able to open up after this is all done.

  • Paul Solman:

    Brooklyn landlord Chris Athineos:

  • Chris Athineos:

    I have a vacant apartment, and I have a couple of tenants whose leases were expiring, and they have already told me they're not planning to renew their lease. I'm afraid, how am I going to rent those apartments?

    The whole city is shut down. Certainly, no one is moving here from outside of New York City to get a job.

  • Paul Solman:

    And no one is coming to Chinatown.

  • Jan Lee:

    The restaurants don't have bookings. We are very, very close to completely losing everything that my family has built up for three generations. And we are not unique.

  • Paul Solman:

    And, thus, the looming cascade: no jobs, to no rent, to no taxes, in which case, how do cities like New York come back when its people return to the streets?

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman, still home.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest