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The worst for US renters and apartment owners is yet to come
APARTMENT landlords across the US spent the last days of March holding their collective breath while waiting for rent cheques to come in.
For the most part, they did, thanks to the US$2 trillion in emergency relief authorised by Congress to blunt the economic blow of the pandemic. Now, expanded unemployment benefits are expiring and eviction bans are set to lift, leaving tenants and building owners wondering again what will happen when the bills are due.
It's not going to be good.
One in three renters failed to make their full payment in the first week of July, an Apartment List survey showed. Nearly 12 million renters could be served with eviction notices in the next four months, according to an analysis by advisory firm Stout Risius Ross. And in some cities, such as New York and Houston, more than a fifth of renters say they have "no confidence" in their ability to pay next month.
"You'd have to go back to the Great Depression to find the kind of numbers we're looking at right now," said John Pollock, staff attorney at the Public Justice Center, a Baltimore non-profit that uses legal tools to fight poverty. "There's almost no precedent for this, which is why it's so scary."
The pandemic spurred mass layoffs beginning in March, and renters have been scraping by on a combination of savings, credit card debt, unemployment benefits and federal stimulus. Roughly 11 million renters spend at least half of their income to keep a roof over their heads in normal times, and the first wave of job cuts skewed towards lower-paying retail and hospitality workers who are less likely to have emergency savings.
One-time stimulus payments of US$1,200 helped, as did eviction moratoriums passed by local, state and federal governments. And Congress authorised an additional US$600 a week in unemployment insurance on top of what states provide, offering a lifeline to millions. In some cases, the benefits exceed what workers were bringing home while employed.
That extra boost will expire at the end of the month without action by Congress. The Trump administration and Senate Republicans have yet to release their US$1 trillion plan for another round of virus relief, which Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and others have described as an extension of portions of the last stimulus. The proposal would be their opening bid in talks with Democrats, who've already offered a US$3.5 trillion package.
Continuing the extra unemployment benefits would provide a measure of relief to people like Brooke Martin, 33, who lost her job at a dive bar in Seattle in March. Even though the business has since reopened, she's hesitant to go back, fearing for her own safety. The bar doesn't have good ventilation and people aren't wearing masks when they aren't drinking, she said.
Ms Martin and her husband have been living off her unemployment alone, because he was unable to collect benefits himself. After her student loan payments, utilities and other expenses, the money is barely enough to cover their US$1,800-a-month apartment.
"As of the end of the month, we're screwed," she said. "There's just no two ways about it."
The US had a pretty "stingy" safety net when it came to housing before the pandemic, said Mary Cunningham, vice-president of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
But Congress's quick action to give aid this spring has shown the upside of being more generous. Adults who received unemployment benefits were far less likely to report they were worried about making rent or mortgage payments, compared to those who hadn't gotten the relief, according to a survey the institute conducted in May.
"This has been an important part of the safety net," said Ms Cunningham. "If Congress doesn't do anything, I think we are in for a dark fall and winter."
John Pawlowski, a senior analyst at real estate research firm Green Street Advisors, said he doubts the apartment industry would see an immediate crash if the additional unemployment benefits aren't extended. People will skip things such as car and credit card payments to cobble together enough for rent.
"People still need a place to live," he said.
But over the long-term, rental revenue will decline because of missed payments and lower occupancy as tenants look to save money by doubling up with others, Mr Pawlowski said. Landlords could end up missing more than US$22 billion in rent over the next four months, according to the Stout analysis.
Chuck Sheldon manages about 1,650 apartments in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about half of which he owns. Rent collections have been far better than he had feared in late March, when several states were going into lockdown.
Mr Sheldon's T&C Management tends to rent to more blue-collar and service workers who have been disproportionately hit by job losses. Most have tried to stay current, he said, and the US$600 unemployment boost has been a "huge" part of that.
"When it drops off, that's going to be painful," he said. BLOOMBERG