SALT LAKE CITY — Sandra worked as a manager at TGI Fridays for seven years. She loved her job. “I’m kind of a workaholic,” she admitted.
“I didn’t have a lot of money in the bank, but my life was OK,” Sandra, who’s in her 60s, said.
Then she, along with millions of others in the service industry, got laid off as restaurants shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now, there’s nowhere to go each day, and no paycheck on its way.
April 1 came and went and Sandra still didn’t have a way to pay rent. She worried about landing on the street in the midst of a pandemic, along with her daughter and brother, a retired veteran. (Sandra’s last name is being withheld due to a clause in her lease prohibiting her from speaking with the press.)
“I’m afraid of what’s coming,” she said over Google Hangouts from the parking lot of a motel where she could take advantage of the free Wi-Fi; she couldn’t pay her phone bill this month and her service was shut off.
Sandra’s story is representative of one that will define the economic toll of the pandemic. Almost a third of American renters did not pay rent by the first week of April, as the country faced massive layoffs, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.
Cities and states across the West have responded to the potential housing crisis in different ways: from doing nothing to passing limited moratoriums on evictions to banning evictions and allowing tenants up to six months to pay back rent.
However, even the most generous state plans won’t reach all renters. Some tenant unions, renters and activists are advocating for complete rent amnesty until the crisis has subsided. How will those like Sandra, without savings or a job in the foreseeable future, pay rent for April, let alone May?
And how will the country effectively fight a pandemic when millions more may end up homeless?
A patchwork of state responses
Sandra lives in a suburb of Boise, Idaho, where there were no specific protections for renters who lost their jobs due to COVID-19.
While the governor of Idaho issued a statewide stay-at-home order, he did not impose a moratorium on evictions.
Instead, court hearings for most evictions were temporarily suspended. However, evictions can still be initiated and once courts reopen advocates are expecting a surge in proceedings.
The Eviction Lab at Princeton, which maintains a database of evictions across the country, has ranked the response and protections put into place by states amid the pandemic. Idaho has one of the worst rankings in the country.
The Intermountain Fair Housing Council, a nonprofit in Idaho that mainly focuses on ensuring inclusive housing practices, is providing emergency rental assistance to people across the state. The organization is getting triple the number of requests for assistance compared to what it usually receives, according to Zoe Olson, the group’s executive director.
Keeping people housed and self-isolated is better for everybody, Olson said, and will help stop the spread of COVID-19.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom gave cities and counties the option to implement eviction moratoriums, an announcement that was widely misinterpreted as a statewide ban, said Anya Svanoe of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.
That organization started receiving calls from concerned renters, wondering whether they would face eviction if they didn’t pay rent.
Newsom later issued another executive order banning evictions of those who could not pay rent because they lost their jobs due to COVID-19.
Like so many aspects of the pandemic, confusion is widespread.
In Utah, a narrow moratorium on evictions for those who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 was put in place in April. It does not protect those who are behind on rent for other reasons.
In Portland, Oregon, a moratorium on evictions due to nonpayment was put into place in March. Tenants can also take up to six months to pay back rent after the end of the emergency.
“It’s going to be very hard to abide by any sort of quarantining order if you don’t have a house,” Evan Wellington, an organizer with Portland Tenants United, said.
While Portland’s policy is one of the more expansive in the West, Wellington is still worried about what will happen in six months to those who lost their jobs due to COVID-19.
“Any solution that doesn’t include rent forgiveness is just kicking the can down the road,” Wellington said.
Evictions haven’t stopped
Eighty percent of evictions are going forward as usual, according to Paul Smith, executive director of the Utah Apartment Association.
The moratorium did not apply to most Utah renters, Smith explained. The majority of people still need to pay rent or they will be evicted.
“It’s a very small percentage of people that are vulnerable. Most landlords are working with them anyway,” Smith said.
However, in early April, 33,076 people in Utah filed for unemployment in a single week. On average, there are about a 1,000 new claims in a week.
Marty Blaustein, an attorney with Utah Legal Services, an organization that defends tenants in eviction cases, said his workload has remained steady — despite the hiatus on some evictions. The main difference is that hearings are now taking place online, although many of his clients don’t have access to the internet and libraries are closed.
Blaustein suspects that in instances where tenants truly are protected in Utah, landlords may attempt to file an eviction anyway, citing causes such as disorderly conduct rather than nonpayment.
Evictions were also continuing in many parts of Idaho too, Olson, with the Intermountain Fair Housing Council, said.
She tried to work with housing providers to delay them, but evictions went forward nevertheless. Some landlords said that once they got their attorneys involved, the process was too far gone, Olson said.
The best they could do in that situation was to get the individual or family rehoused right away, Olson said. “We don’t want anybody to end up in a shelter right now.”
No one’s a winner
When Sandra lost her job, she texted her landlord to let her know she was laid off, and might not be able to make rent. Her landlord told her that between Sandra, her daughter, and brother they should be able to figure it out, Sandra said.
April 1 came and went, Sandra’s landlord told her she’d have to pay a $50 late fee — more money she didn’t have.
She was ultimately able to obtain rental assistance from a nonprofit to cover rent for April. Sandra attempted to smile, even through her tears. “I just think about the people at work with young kids, I don’t have it as hard as others.”
Some landlords say that rental assistance should come from outside sources.
“It is not appropriate for someone to take advantage of a housing provider by staying and not paying,” Smith at the Apartment Association said.
“Get on unemployment, apply for a housing voucher,” Smith said. “Find someone to move in with. Look into the homeless shelters.”
He said while many landlords are trying to work with tenants, it should ultimately fall to the government, family or friends, nonprofits or churches to step in.
Plus, Smith said, most of the money paid toward rent actually goes toward upkeep and paying the mortgage. “The profit (about 9 cents on the dollar) goes to seniors who rely on that income for their retirement, or to owners who feed their families from their rental business. It’s not fat cat investors who are rich and can do without,” Smith said.
But, even with unemployment assistance and a one-time stimulus check, Americans like Sandra are struggling.
May is quickly approaching. Rent for April is taken care of, but unemployment isn’t enough to live off, Sandra said.
“I’m worried every day,” Sandra said. “How am I going to find another job?”
“A lot of us have lost,” she paused for a moment, “a lot.”