What options do renters have if they can’t make May rent?

Plus, why the pandemic may cause an urban exodus, possible issues with a bailout bill for farmers, and whether we'll start dressing differently

May 5, 2020

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Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing about journalism and coronavirus, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

As May rents come due, reality hits for renters and landlords

In the next few days, as monthly rents come due, we will begin to see how much of a bandage the $1,200 federal stimulus payments provided for renters’ financial injuries.

Will we see the threatened rent strike? Will landlords and creditors continue to be as understanding as they were in April when layoffs and furloughs were just unfolding?

Some landlords have said they would not foreclose or evict tenants during the COVID-19 crisis. And there are some federal and state restraints to keep landlords from evicting renters who cannot pay because of the pandemic (see a state-by-state chart of emergency eviction laws).

Last week, for example, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Affairs approved an emergency rule that stops landlords from charging late fees until the end of August.

In mid-April, The National Association of Property Managers said, “Over 40% of property managers reported that 91 to 100% of their tenants had paid April’s rent in full and on-time. Another 20% said that 81-90% of their tenants were current with payments.”

Interestingly, that is not far off the norm. But now, property owners worry, renters may have used up any savings they had, and paying May rent will be a lot tighter.

Property owners are considering a range of ways to help renters, including using as their May rent the deposits that they put down before moving in. For example, if renters who put down a one-month security deposit or last-month rent deposit miss May’s rent payment, property owners might offer to use the deposit to cover it. Some state laws allow that, some don’t. Here is a list.

Like renters, homeowners are asking lenders for compassion. The Washington Post said:

Already, at least 3.8 million homeowners have sought mortgage relief and were not making their payments by the end of April, a 2,400% increase from early March, according to Black Knight, a mortgage technology and data provider. That number is likely to increase drastically this week as the country’s unemployment rate hits levels unseen since the Great Recession, lenders and housing advocates say.

Advocacy groups have called on Congress to do everything from ordering a national moratorium on foreclosures and evictions to pouring money into homeless centers.

NOLO, a site to help consumers and small businesses find answers to legal and business questions, offered a few resources to help your listeners/viewers/readers:

You can also check to see if your utility providers have taken the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Keep Americans Connected pledge to not disconnect residential or small business customers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sources of Coronavirus Assistance for Landlords and Tenants: A list of federal, state, local, non-profit, and private sources of financial assistance and other resources for both tenants and landlords.

CNN Business offered advice for people who will not be able to make May rent or mortgage payments. It starts with communication. Ignoring the people you owe money to won’t turn out well. CNN reported:

Landlords don’t have to let you defer payments, said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, director and counsel of Tzedek DC, an independent public interest center at the University of the District of Columbia. “But many understand that something is better than nothing and will accept an offer to defer, delay or reduce a payment.”

Document your requests, advocates say, and be wary of a landlord pressuring you to sign a payment agreement.

“It is smart to reach out to landlords,” said (Michael) Trujillo, (housing staff attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley). “But I hope that tenants don’t feel pressured to sign anything they don’t think they can uphold.”

If you are covered by an eviction moratorium, make sure you do what is required to be protected by it. This may vary but may involve collecting documentation of your coronavirus-related hardship, like a notice of a furlough or layoff, and a copy of the notification of your inability to pay that you provided your landlord.

“If a family has lost all their income because of a job loss as a result of COVID-19, that family shouldn’t be making a choice between paying rent or paying for food,” said Trujillo. “They should let their landlord know they aren’t paying rent and provide documentation to be protected from eviction. They can use their money on other basic necessities.”

The Atlantic put some perspective on what is about to unfold. The fact is Americans were already facing an affordable housing problem before the pandemic.

As of 2018, 44% of renters in New York paid more than 30% of their income in rent; 22% paid more than 50%. But the problem extended far beyond superstar cities on the coasts. Suburbs, rural areas, cities in the Midwest and the South — they all had their own affordability crises, driven by a combination of wage stagnation and increasing housing costs. Across the country, a larger share of low-to-middle-income families were rent-burdened in 2018 than in 2011, with 21 million households spending 30% or more of their earnings on rent and utilities.

Even during the good times, two in five Americans and three in five renters could not have come up with $400 in an emergency, Federal Reserve data show. How can such families pay their landlords in the lightning-strike cataclysm of the pandemic? “The rents have increased so much with gentrification,” Lena Melendez, a rent striker based in Washington Heights, in New York City, told me. “Just one month’s rent can be too much, because the market rate is unsustainable. Even with unemployment, the $600, and the stimulus checks, it won’t be enough,” she added, referring to federal relief measures.

Journalists, it would be a real service if you would collect easy-to-use resources to help renters and landlords understand the emergency eviction and foreclosure laws where you live. It could look something like this, from Colorado.

COVID-19 may cause an exodus from cities

A new Harris poll said the pandemic may be just the thing that ignites another retreat from crowded cities to the suburbs and beyond. For one thing, if the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us we can work at home and not have to commute to cities, why not live outside the cities where housing is more affordable? USA Today reported:

Nearly a third of Americans are considering moving to less densely populated areas in the wake of the pandemic, according to new data from Harris Poll. That may foreshadow a shift that would have a major impact on residential real estate sales and home prices.

Urbanites (43%) were twice as likely than suburban (26%) and rural (21%) dwellers to have recently browsed a real estate website for homes and apartments to rent or buy, the survey showed, which was conducted among 2,050 U.S adults from April 25-27.

SBA opened loans to farmers, but what happened to the last agriculture bailout?

The U.S. Small Business Administration just announced it has opened applications for agricultural business loans for up to $10,000 under the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.

The SBA said:

The new eligibility is made possible as a result of the latest round of funds appropriated by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Agricultural businesses include those businesses engaged in the production of food and fiber, ranching, and raising of livestock, aquaculture, and all other farming and agricultural related industries (as defined by section 18(b) of the Small Business Act (15 U.S.C. 647(b)).

SBA is encouraging all eligible agricultural businesses with 500 or fewer employees wishing to apply to begin preparing their business financial information needed for their application.

Before farmers faced the COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted meat processing and produce sales, they endured, or tried to endure, a trade war with China. The pandemic made a bad situation worse. During the tariff war, President Donald Trump and the United States Department of Agriculture promised to offset the huge drop in grain sales, especially soybean sales, with a $28 billion plan. The plan did not give farmers everything they lost in the trade war but it would, at least, keep the tractors rolling for another season.

The public heard over and over that farmers would get help, often giving the impression that the family farmer would be the beneficiary of such a plan. It has not turned out that way.

Sunday night, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” documented how it was not the small farmer who got the money. It largely went to corporate owners and, perhaps surprising to you, to real or just on-paper investors who have nothing to do with farming.

You can search the list of recipients, keeping in mind that this data is about a year old. I would guide you not to just compile and publish a list of recipients and hold them up to public scrutiny, but instead to think of this as a way to get leads for stories about the bailout program and the pressures that farmers are under during the COVID-19 crisis. “60 Minutes” didn’t name individual recipients but did describe them in general terms, including people living in big cities and having professions that have nothing to do with farming.

That list of recipients comes from the Environmental Working Group, which has been publishing data like this for years. EWG said Congress built a loophole in the Department of Agriculture’s rules that allow non-farmers to get farm payments.

In particular, a House provision would allow a farmer’s cousins, nieces and nephews to receive subsidies, regardless of whether they live or work on the farm. A separate House provision would waive a means test for some corporate farms, once again allowing billionaires to receive farm subsidies.

EWG recently reported that nearly 20,000 city slickers in the nation’s 50 largest cities received farm subsidies in 2017, including hundreds who have received a payment for 33 straight years. A Government Accountability Office report recently found that nearly one-fourth of subsidy recipients in certain kinds of farm partnerships do not contribute personal labor to the farm.

The New York Times said:

Critics have faulted the program for the formulas it used to determine payments for certain crops and for providing funds to big corporate farms. The program, which used a Depression-era fund, allowed farmers earning less than $900,000 a year to receive money if they produced one of the agricultural products that faced retaliation. The government also purchased certain products, such as apples, oranges and pork.

Which brings us to today. Small farms were hanging on by their fingernails after the tariff battle. Now they are asking Congress to pay attention to them in whatever bailout bill might come next. Most of the money flowed to the biggest operators in the USDA’s tariff relief efforts. They do not want the same thing to happen to this program.

Sen. John Hoeven, chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations’ agriculture panel, outlined what is in the just-passed $19 billion USDA stimulus plan for farmers:

USDA will provide $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and ranchers including:

  • $9.6 billion for the livestock industry
    • $5.1 billion for cattle
    • $2.9 billion for dairy
    • $1.6 billion for hogs
  • $3.9 billion for row crop producers
  • $2.1 billion for specialty crops producers
  • $500 million for others crops

Producers will receive a single payment determined using two calculations:

  • Price losses that occurred January 1-April 15, 2020. Producers will be compensated for 85% of price loss during that period.
  • Second part of the payment will be expected losses from April 15 through the next two quarters, and will cover 30% of expected losses.

The payment limit is $125,000 per commodity with an overall limit of $250,000 per individual or entity. Qualified commodities must have experienced a 5% price decrease between January and April.

The COVID-19 relief package left ethanol producers out in the cold and they are not happy. Corn farmers have a small new market in crops that producers turn into alcohol for hand sanitizers, but that pales next to the size of the ethanol industry’s hit from driving reductions. The Renewable Fuels Association said in a report that ethanol sales could drop by $10 billion from the $23 billion expected this year.

Will the COVID-19 lockdown change how we dress for work?

The other day I realized it had been a month and a half since I had been to the dry cleaner and nearly two months since I put on a tie.

The Cut observed:

So many people are embracing sweatpants right now, the style has seen a reported increase in sales.

But what happens when we emerge from all this? As history has shown, a large-scale crisis (like a pandemic) can change the way we dress. One oft-cited example is what happened post-World War II. Pants became more common for women, who were asked to enter the workforce, but after years of fabric rationing and women playing more traditionally masculine roles, women also turned toward fuller, more feminine silhouettes — the trickle-down effect of Christian Dior’s “new look.”

What happens to the fashion industry is no flight of fancy. It involves 25 million global jobs. J. Crew’s financial troubles are just a symptom of wider industry illness. From garment workers to retail clerks to designers, and the shipping and trucking industries, clothing is one of those industries you might not think about as an industry. But not unlike the food industry, it affects every person somehow.

A quick look through Instagram’s #QuarantineChic will show you what we think is “in” now, and it is a study in athletic wear, with sparks of “dressed up for the heck of it.”

Will the 2020 pandemic usher in designer hoodies that will cover our heads? Will designer face masks become the status symbol of the year? When we start to recover, will we turn to comfort clothes, or will we dress up to make ourselves feel better? In a damaged economy, will fashion reflect austerity?

Fashion historian Raissa Bretaña said the opposite may be true. An article in Teen Vogue said:

Bertaña links this theory back to wartime dressing, when Christian Dior’s New Look revitalized the fashion industry, reinventing new formalities and femininity in a post-World War II world. During that war, rationing placed serious bans on imported materials. As a result, the U.S. went into production of manmade fibers and new silhouettes of clothing characterized by simplicity and bland colors. Think: easy to wear, easy to wash, simple styles such as the house dress. During this time, women even used feed sacks and flour bags to make dresses, underwear, and household items because of the lack of materials. “During the 1940s, widespread rationing of textiles severely limited the design and production of fashionable dress, forcing designers and manufacturers to adapt to scarcity,” says Bretaña.

“My hope is that post-pandemic fashion capitalizes on the ‘occasion’ of dressing up,” Bretaña adds. “When we are finally able to return to social activities like parties and happy hours and even in-person work meetings, I think that the opportunity to dress up will inspire even the least fashion-forward people to make more of an effort than they did pre-pandemic.”

Could this be virtual reality’s big opportunity?

Oculus, a Facebook-owned virtual reality hardware and software company, said sales of its VR goggles are way up since people have been stuck at home. Part of the excitement comes from enthusiasm over the new Oculus Quest, a wireless VR headset. The company said it is selling out as fast as it can manufacture them.

Another contributing factor to an increase in VR sales is the release of “Half-Life: Alyx,” a game that has gotten rave reviews.

An Italian research project said that VR may be helpful during the pandemic by allowing people to virtually go outside and experience things that release the pent-up tension from staying locked in their homes. There is some ongoing research about how VR can be useful in reducing stress and PTSD symptoms.

Both virtual reality and augmented reality have taken a lot longer to catch on than many predicted, but the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have given users a reason to consider the technology. For example, VR exercise programs are catching on.

The global lockdown has been a boon for app developers. App downloads worldwide exploded in the pandemic. But interruptions in manufacturing supply chains, the fact that brick and mortar stores selling VR gear are closed and a global recession all weigh against new expensive tech.

What do I see on your bookshelf?

It has become a sort of parlor game to try to make out the books people put behind themselves when they are video chatting. The New York Times zoomed in on the backgrounds used by celebrities and found no scandals, but maybe a few insights.

The Getty Museum has hundreds of open-source downloadable artworks for your Zoom background.

For those of you not trying to impress anybody, you can use The Simpsons-themed backgrounds with permission from Fox. Pixar also offered some really nice backgrounds, as did Nickelodeon.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.