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How Housing Providers are Really Responding to the Pandemic

I don’t usually put my name on the articles I write for RPBG. But this one is different. This one is personal. And this one needs to start with a thank-you.

I first met Stacie Young, Preservation Compact Director at Community Investment Corporation, about three years ago when she and I were both invited to attend a meeting of the NBOA (Neighborhood Building Owner’s Alliance). I was immediately impressed with Stacie’s grasp of the major housing issues facing our industry and her reasonableness in balancing the goals and objectives of both property owners and tenants’ organizations.

The real problem we should be focusing on is the pandemic itself, and what property owners and tenants’ rights groups can do together to survive it.

Since that first meeting, Stacie and I have gotten together regularly to talk about important housing issues and legislation, and to compare notes on the perspectives of both the property owner groups that I speak for, and the tenants’ rights organizations with which Stacie has established strong working relationships.

Every time we meet, I’m always amazed by how much our positions align and how little really divides us.

Not a single property owner said that their preferred initial response to an interruption in rent is eviction.

After the pandemic took off and the economy began to shut down, Stacie and I were both bothered and depressed by the ugly downward spiral in relations between property owners and tenants’ rights organizations. To be fair, this relationship was not great before the pandemic. But it seemed to both of us that it had hit a new low with the pandemic’s onset.

In talking about this, we came up with an idea. If Stacie and I could agree on so much and disagree on so little, then maybe we could extrapolate our own experience to the wider property owner-tenant divide.

Every property owner I spoke to expressed genuine concern about the sudden economic reversal that many of their tenants were experiencing, and the harm it caused.

We decided Stacie would write an article drawing on her experience as the Preservation Compact Director at CIC, and I would write an article from my perspective as a property owner and spokesman for RPBG. Both articles would try to shed some light on what the two sides have in common. This was certainly our own experience. Why not find similar common ground between property owners and tenants’ rights groups writ large? We decided to give it a try.

Stacie’s excellent contribution makes an obvious, but often overlooked, point. The real problem we should be focusing on is the pandemic itself, and what property owners and tenants’ rights groups can do together to survive it.

In every instance where a tenant came to a property owner in good faith with stories of economic hardship, property owners were willing and eager to try to work something out.

My contribution is a little different. It is an attempt to showcase some of the actual responses of real property owners to the hardship experienced by so many of our tenants. In putting this article together, I talked with many property owners at RPBG, asking them what kinds of problems they encountered after the pandemic started, and how they responded. Out of these many individual conversations, I can identify a handful of nearly universal truths.

First, not a single property owner said that their preferred initial response to an interruption in rent is eviction. In fact, it is probably fair to say that no property owner ever wants to start with eviction. Evictions are costly, cumbersome, time-consuming, and destructive to the lives of both the tenants and the property owners involved. It may be necessary in many instances, but it is never preferred.

Second, every property owner I spoke to expressed genuine concern about the sudden economic reversal that many of their tenants were experiencing, and the harm it caused. And, for anyone who thinks this hardship was limited to tenants, here’s a news flash – it was not.

Most of the property owners I spoke with told me that the problem tenants they are dealing with, and virtually all of those currently in the eviction process, were tenants whose problems started long before COVID-19 became an issue.

After the pandemic first occurred, no one knew how badly rent collections would fall off, or how much this decline would impact property owners’ ability to pay their own bills, including mortgages, real estate taxes, insurance, utilities and the payrolls of managers and maintenance staff. So, in a very real way, the panic many people felt when that initial economic crash first occurred was shared both by tenants and property owners alike – another commonality that we both wish we did not share...

Protest outside Governor JB Pritzker's Chicago home demands greater renter protections

Third, every property owner had stories to tell about the measures they took to work with tenants who, through no fault of their own, were suddenly out of work and unable to pay rent. In every instance where a tenant came to a property owner in good faith with stories of economic hardship, property owners were willing and eager to try to work something out. Property owners, like their tenants, recognized that working together was the only rational response to an economic event that no one could have foreseen.

Many property owners I spoke with offered to defer or even forgive rent, depending on the circumstances. Some agreed to early lease terminations with no penalties or fee so that tenants could move back with family or friends. Property owners frequently pointed tenants to charitable organizations or governmental agencies with money or other resources for rent, utility bills and groceries. Property owners were both patient and understanding with tenants who who expressed frustration in their attempts to apply for unemployment, or who faced long waits for that first unemployment check to arrive.

The reality is that property owners and tenants have more in common in this crisis than we realize. We both share fears of economic ruin and bills that cannot be paid.

Finally, most of the property owners I spoke with told me that the problem tenants they are dealing with, and virtually all of those currently in the eviction process, were tenants whose problems started long before COVID-19 became an issue. The truth is, these tenants are using the COVID-19 emergency and the eviction freezes in Chicago and Illinois to prolong their rent-free living arrangements.

As Stacie points out in her article, positions have hardened on both sides. Too many property owners automatically assume that all tenants’ rights organizations want to use the COVID-19 emergency as an excuse to “cancel rent.” Too many tenants’ rights organizations are convinced that all property owners just want to evict everyone who falls behind in rent.

The enemy is not the property owner or the tenant. The enemy is the pandemic. We have to correctly identify the problem before we can solve it.

The reality is that property owners and tenants have more in common in this crisis than we realize. We both share fears of economic ruin and bills that cannot be paid. Much more often than not, we recognize the humanity and struggles of the other side as we work together to figure out how to survive this crisis.

I am going to end my article with the same conclusion that Stacie came to in hers. The enemy is not the property owner or the tenant. The enemy is the pandemic. And the solution is neither to “cancel rent,” nor to implement mass evictions. The solution is to band together to demand a governmental response that will both control the virus and provide the money needed to get us through the period of time until that can happen.

So far, we seem to be in a “worst of all worlds” situation where we have both turned on each other while giving the governmental response a pass. Surely, a better strategy is to set aside our differences, continue to work together as property owners and tenants, and demand a more competent and effective response from our governmental leaders. Until the pandemic is either under control, or manageable through the development of a vaccine, there can be no real solution to the economic misery we are all feeling.

We have to correctly identify the problem before we can solve it. And the problem, for the most part, is not manipulative tenants or trigger-happy property owners. It is that no one can feel economically secure until this virus is defeated. The more we fight each other, the more the virus wins.

 

 

 

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