Martina Williams was laid off as a housekeeper at the Blackstone Hotel on Friday the 13th, two long weeks ago. It took her until Wednesday to get through to the state’s unemployment system and register. She’s been busy re-organizing life with her two school-age daughters, and then a matter-of-fact email landed in her inbox.
It was her landlord’s property manager reminding her that rent is due Wednesday, April 1. Williams said there was no hint of an extension nor any reference to the coronavirus pandemic that has created a national economic crisis.
“They haven’t called or reached out to offer any help,” Williams said. She said she can’t make the rent until her unemployment comes through, but she’s staying upbeat. “I’m always keeping the faith. We can’t do anything about this. I’m just looking forward to when we can all get past this,” Williams said.
Others are having a harder time keeping positive. West Sider Ryaneal Campbell, laid off from his job at the airline caterer Flying Food Group at O’Hare Airport. is a caregiver for an elderly relative. He can’t get through to the unemployment office, and next month’s rent looms.
“I’ve had some help from family, but now I’m tapped out of cash. I don’t know where my next meal is coming from,” Campbell said.
Many renters who have lost jobs or seen their hours cut because of the coronavirus have their own reckoning with an April 1 due date. Larger Chicago-area landlords say they’re in no mood to forgive rent, but they might extend the deadline if asked. Some may hold off on eviction proceedings for longer than the current state and local mandates require.
“We expect rent to be paid on time. For those who lost their jobs, we’ll work out a payment plan. I still have to pay salaries, taxes and mortgages,” said Stuart Handler, CEO of TLC Management and a board member of the Chicagoland Apartment Association, the lobbying voice for landlords. TLC has more than 10,000 apartments in the city and suburbs.
David Friedman, president of F&F Realty in Skokie, said tenants have leverage because Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has suspended evictions until April 30. Landlords, however, are free to start eviction proceedings in court, a filing that could hurt tenants’ chance of finding an apartment elsewhere.
Out of work? Hours cut? Tips for working with your landlord
John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, has some advice for tenants whose jobs have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and may have a hard time paying rent:
• Gather any proof of economic hardship and talk to your landlord now.
• Get any promises in writing.
• Don’t agree to deferred payment terms that you cannot meet.
• Don’t arbitrarily withhold rent because of a current freeze on evictions. “Landlords can still file for an eviction in court, so you might be hurting your prospects to get another place,” Bartlett said.
“Nobody is going to be thrown out for the time being. We plan to work with every single resident who is facing hardship,” Friedman said. “We’ve always accepted payment plans.” He said F&F, with some 4,000 apartments in the suburbs, has eliminated charges for credit card payments.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday offered help for rent or mortgage payments. She announced a program to provide 2,000 grants of $1,000 each to Chicagoans who can prove job or income loss due to the coronavirus. The $2 million comes from the city’s Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund that developers pay into. Applications are available at chicago.gov/coronavirus.
More than two dozen community groups that support tenants’ interests have called on Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Lightfoot to order a freeze on rent, mortgage and utility payments while the pandemic continues. An online petition on Action Network has gathered more than 10,000 signatures in support of that cause, although the legality of any broad payment freeze is open to question.
“Tenants who know that missing rent could result in an eviction case on their record are more likely to go to work with symptoms and risk spreading the virus,” the petition says, “Tenants forced to move face logistical hardships and a higher risk of spreading and/or contracting the virus. The only way to slow the virus’ spread is to assure people that they will not be penalized for playing it safe.”
Lightfoot has not urged landlords to forgive rent. The furthest she’s gone is in an address in which she called on property owners to “give tenants some grace wherever possible during these trying times.”
“We will be working out payment plans and showing grace,” Handler said.
Todd Bancroft, CEO of apartment owner Draper and Kramer, also did not commit to forgiving rents. He said in an emailed statement, “We are following all government directives, including the halt on evictions that was part of Gov. Pritzker’s statewide stay-at-home order, and are working on a case-by-case basis with residents who have a documented hardship as a result of COVID-19. We are actively consulting with industry associations and thinking creatively about possible solutions as we work to find the best path forward during these truly unprecedented times.”
In Chicago, many leases renew May 1. Building owners have been planning rent hikes to meet an expected increase in property tax assessments, but pressures from the pandemic may change their calculations.
Chicago-based Equity Residential, one of the largest publicly traded owners of apartment buildings, said Wednesday it will offer lease renewals with no increases because of the pandemic. The company said it was offering flexible payments and renewal terms to help its residents.
In addition, Equity Residential said it was following pandemic-related recommendations of the National Multi-Housing Council, a group representing landlords. The council urged members to avoid rent hikes and to halt evictions for the next 90 days.
Handler said most large landlords use dynamic-pricing services that give them an up-to-date view of market conditions by unit size, neighborhood and other measures. He said he’s seeing an overall balance in supply and demand, with some rents rising but others falling.
“Right now, you cannot say as a general rule that landlords are raising rents,” he said.