Amount due

Deferred rent. Total amount due. What landlords are telling tenants during the COVID-19 crisis.

It’s a hell of a time to try and open a restaurant.

That’s what Steven Kresena thought last week as he watched Austin Mayor Steve Adler order all restaurants and guest bars to close in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Kresena had just inspected the tile at her new restaurant, Ovenbird, which was due to open at Southern Congress this month.

His girlfriend, meanwhile, had been fired from her job at Odd Duck, an upscale restaurant in South Lamar. The couple had $ 500 a week from what was left of the starting money for the now-closed and never-opened Kresena restaurant, but they weren’t sure how long that would last.

“Financially, I’m panicking,” Kresena said. “Can we pay the rent this month and if so can we pay the next month? “

Next, the couple received an email from the company that runs their one-bedroom apartment in South Austin.

“Thank you for being a resident of Ely Properties. We hope you and your family are doing well in these unprecedented times,” began the note, a copy of which was shared with KUT.

“Please understand that the coronavirus pandemic does not change your legal obligations to pay your rent. These difficult times will be tough for all of us, but we see it coming to an end soon and we look forward to life getting back to normal. “

Kresena said the letter was “heartless”.

An Ely Properties representative said in an email that the company did not intend the letter to appear callous. He said the company was unaware of Kresena’s financial difficulties and would work with each tenant on a “case-by-case basis.”

Kresena, who said he’s never missed a rent payment, expected something else in that original email – a little more empathy.

“It’s not like we’re looking to skate around here. But some sort of payment plan or some postponement (would have been good), ”he said. “We’re happy to contribute, obviously, because we live here. “

Just over half of Austin residents rent their homes, and compared to homeowners in the city, tend to have lower incomes. They work in service jobs, the wages of which have dried up with the closure of restaurants, and low-wage jobs without paid leave.

Simply put, tenants have been hit hard by the economic impacts of the spread of COVID-19.

There was some relief in the Austin area. Travis County courts do not hear evictions, although homeowners can still file them. And today, city council members will vote to block eviction requests, essentially giving residential and commercial tenants 60 days before landlords can sue over unpaid rent.

Landlords and property managers have offered rent deferrals and payment plans to tenants, according to emails shared with KUT. Some, like the manager of Kresena’s apartment, demand full payment of the rent. Others said little.

Emily Blair, executive vice president of the Austin Apartment Association, said her group’s message to owners was to say something: “Communication, communication, communication.”

“Communicate your expectations, whether it’s equipment shutdowns and that sort of thing,” Blair said. “(Make sure) residents are aware of what’s going on on their property. “

While the federal government has ordered mortgage lenders to be flexible with homeowners financially affected by the pandemic, relief for tenants is uncertain. In addition, homeowners are unlikely to benefit from the breaks afforded to traditional mortgage borrowers, making it more difficult to pass the relief on to their tenants.

For small owners with less potential income, this is worrying.

Liza Wimberley and her sister rent three houses and a quadruple to families in Austin. Wimberley said she had tenants, including a fitness instructor and teacher, who likely lost their wages due to the coronavirus.

“We are preparing to receive the e-mails:” We cannot make rent,“she said.” We have an interim plan where we are going to let people not pay for a month and then reassess where we are after that. “

Blair says the Texas Apartment Association recommended last week that owner members offer tenant payment plans and temporarily waive late fees. But the association didn’t prescribe what a payment plan should look like.

A tenant in North Austin shared a copy of the plan proposed by his management company with KUT. (The tenant requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the property manager.)

A tenant will first need to qualify for the payment plan by providing proof that they have applied for “any government benefits or subsidies”. If the tenant is approved, they will have to pay 30% of their April rent, with the rest split between May and June and due – along with their regular rent – on the first of the month.

Advocates recommend that if tenants agree to a tenancy deferral plan, they should make sure the agreement is in writing. Most importantly, they recommend that tenants pay the rent in full, if they are able.

“Rent will eventually have to be paid,” said Shoshana Krieger, project manager of Building and Strengthening Tenant Action, or BASTA. “We’ve heard from tenants a lot of rumors going around that they don’t need to pay April rent, that there is a moratorium on rents. This is not the case and it could put families at risk if they do not pay their rent. “

James Donnelly is one of those people who is not sure they can afford April rent.

“I don’t know what my next checks will look like,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly’s monthly salary has been cut by more than half; While Donnelly normally works 32 hours a week at Radio Coffee and Beer, they now only work 12.

When Donnelly wrote to Roscoe Properties, the company that manages their apartment building, they were hoping to hear about a payment plan option or that late fees would be waived. So, they were surprised to receive a response with a reminder that the rent was still due.

“Regarding the rent payments, this is still being evaluated and if a decision is made we will contact and inform our residents,” the post read. “Rent should be paid as usual for now. Once again, thank you for your understanding and please take whatever steps are necessary to stay healthy during this time! “

Roscoe Properties told KUT on Wednesday that the company had sent tenants new information asking them to let the company know if they had lost their pay and that they could work out a payment plan.

But Donnelly is still concerned about the long-term economic impact on tenants in the building, many of whom have reportedly lost their jobs due to the effects of the coronavirus.

“Some of these places are not going to reopen,” Donnelly said. “Keeping that constant income is a threat to a lot of us” – and it’s a hell of a time trying to find a job.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitorreporting partnership with KUT.

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