Mom-and-Pop Landlords, Struggling to Collect Rent, Face Hard Times
Both landlord and tenant advocates say the solution is a tenant bailout in the form of a rental assistance voucher program.
Surya Davie Hariprasad scrounged to pay the mortgage of her Bronx home after she, her daughter and their only tenant upstairs were stricken with coronavirus in March.
For two months, nobody in their two-family house could work as they battled the virus. Meanwhile, the only income flowing in came from the tenant’s Section 8 vouchers.
“That’s very stressful,” said Hariprasad, 57, a psychiatric technician who’s lived in her Wakefield residence for seven years. “You don’t wanna miss a mortgage payment.”
Hariprasad recently secured a low-interest loan for nearly $10,000 through the nonprofit Center for NYC Neighborhoods, which finally began to ease her financial strain.
“I’m so happy,” she said. “It’s relieved my stress a lot.”
But mom-and-pop landlords across the city say they are reaching a breaking point, after half a year with many tenants paying no rent at all as pandemic-related unemployment has swelled. And they’re backing aid for tenants, which could also help them weather the ongoing crisis.
In a new survey from a landlord trade group for larger, rent-stabilized buildings, the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), one in four members said that 30% or more of their tenants paid nothing in September.
On Friday, small landlords like Hariprasad, many of them immigrants, rallied in pouring rain at City Hall, pleading for relief that will aid tenants — and by extension allow building owners to pay mounting mortgage, tax and utility bills.
The Safety Net for Everyone
Landlords pleaded for property tax relief, beyond the state’s action to delay the sale of tax debts from property owners already in default before the pandemic.
Some held signs in Chinese and English that said “Expedite Housing Court Cases” — a reference to a statewide eviction moratorium that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has extended until Jan. 1.
State court officials recently reopened Housing Court to allow landlords to file for eviction for nonpayment, but the courts face a massive backlog of pre-pandemic filings likely to delay already protracted proceedings.
“A lot of people are dipping into their savings,” said Joanna Wong of the Small Property Owners of New York, a nonprofit representing mom-and-pop landlords. “A lot of people are taking loans out. A lot of people are just deferring their mortgage.”
Wong, whose family owns buildings on the Lower East Side, expressed sympathy for renters in economic shock — and cited the need for a stronger and wider safety net to help carry them through the crisis.
“Tenants are impacted,” she added. “They need help. They should be helped, but we don’t think it’s fair to expect that entire burden to be absorbed by property owners.”
Wong said it’s a myth that all landlords are rich.
“We are now basically acting as the safety net for everyone,” Wong said.
Owners and Tenants Unite
Tenant and landlord advocates are united on one thing: Calling on state lawmakers to create a program of rental vouchers that will help needy tenants pay rent.
A narrower rent-relief program created by the Legislature has received some 90,000 applications, but been hindered by complex eligibility requirements. Crain’s New York Business reported last week that just 6,000 had received aid so far, at an average of $2,000 each.
“We’re just facing a mass eviction crisis and it’s coming, and the wheels are turning right now as we speak,” said Aga Trojniak, director of the Flatbush Tenant Coalition. “To portray it as anything else is just speaking falsehoods.”
Even before the pandemic, CHIP backed a bill that would have had the state help pay rent for tenants on the brink of homelessness. Sponsors argued the move would cost New York less than homeless shelters and other services.
Now, says CHIP Executive Director Jay Martin, government vouchers to cover overdue rent balances would be consistent with financial relief granted to other businesses — and help sustain New York City’s tax base.
“The government always seems to have billions of dollars to bail out other industries,” Martin told THE CITY. “There really is no bigger industry just based off of the amount of property taxes the city takes in alone.”
The city Department of Finance reports that apartment buildings, encompassing rentals, coops and condominiums, brought in $12 billion in city tax revenue for the fiscal year ending June 30.
Martin said typically 5% to 7% of apartment-building tenants didn’t pay rent before the pandemic, but that share has ballooned to about 20% each month since, according to surveys of CHIP’s 4,000 members.
“They’re seeing drastic reductions in the amount of rental income,” he said.
‘Landlords are Suffering’
Many of the property owners at Friday’s rally have more modest holdings than CHIP’s members and are reporting far greater financial hits.
The Rev. James Roy of the United Bengali Lutheran Church said he has three tenants in his three-unit Richmond Hill property, none of whom has paid rent for months.
They now owe him roughly $26,000, Roy said. He understands only one to be unemployed.
“I have to borrow money from many people, including my church,” Roy said. “Landlords are suffering.”
As small owners seek to avoid mortgage foreclosure, the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, a homeowner assistance group, has stepped in to make sure those loans don’t drown owners in a debt hole they can’t crawl out of.
The loan program that helped out Hariprasad, the landlord from The Bronx, came from Credit Builders Alliance’s Fund, which received $1 million from Citi Community Investing and Development, part of Citigroup. The loan — made by Center for NYC Neighborhood’s affiliated financial institution, Sustainable Neighborhoods — has a fixed interest rate of 3% and a term of five years.
“We aim to deliver immediate relief to households in need, so that in the face of a global pandemic, families can rely on their homes as their foundation for safety and resilience,” said Hala Farid of Citi Community Investing and Development.
Hariprasad remains grateful for the help.
“They’re great, wonderful, and I will recommend anyone to go to them,” she said.
Seeking a Deal
Wong of the Small Property Owners of New York urges landlords to work out deals with financially distressed tenants wherever possible, because “Housing Court is the absolute last place we want to be.”
She added: “What I always encourage other owners and tenants to do is try to have a conversation, try to talk about what’s happening and try to work it out.”
A survey of her members this summer showed that most have been able to work out deals with tenants facing financial difficulties.
“They were giving concessions,” Wong said. “They were lowering rents. They were working out payment plans because we don’t want vacancies. We don’t want our tenants to leave.”
City Hall has also stepped in to help. In July, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the Landlord-Tenant Mediation Project to aid with settling disputes before they wind up in Housing Court.
“The mediator is really just there to help the parties figure out for themselves what’s in their own best interests and how to move forward,” Nick Schmitt, a program director for New York Peace Institute, which is providing free mediation services through the project in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Often the focus is on working out a payment plan.
Samantha Adler, also a program director at the Peace Institute, said the organization — one of four mediation groups involved in the project — averages three or four mediations each week. Tenants usually initiate mediation, and some large management companies have refused to participate when asked, she said.
“We’ve worked with them to create long payment plans or plans that incorporate the prospect of not being able to pay rent for the next six months to a year or whatever that looks like,” Adler said. “And we’ve also seen landlords come down with what rent is owed. As soon as the landlord and tenant start to speak to each other and they figure out exactly what situation they’re both going through, they can often reach a compromise.”
Schmitt said both sides are encouraged to share their perspective and financial realities, which reveals how interconnected they are by the economic crisis.
“In the past, we’ve had landlords share that they had to completely wipe out their 401K in order to cover the mortgage while tenants haven’t been paying,” Schmitt said. “They have no retirement fund left. They’ve basically sacrificed their entire future in order to help the tenants stay in the apartment ... and that impacts people.”