Landlords struggle to receive emergency rental assistance : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money For renters to receive emergency rental assistance, they usually need cooperation from their landlords. This is also true vice versa. On today's show, we hear about the struggles of two mom-and-pop landlords with renters who left them holding the bag.
Check out some of Chris Arnold's earlier reporting on the challenges renters are facing during the pandemic:
Why rent help from Congress has been so damn slow getting to people who need it

Georgia County Tried To Help Everyone Facing Eviction. Now A Crisis Looms

With The Eviction Moratorium's End Looming, Black Renters Likely To Be Hit Hard

Landlords need help too

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This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. And I am very excited. We are joined today by the amazing NPR correspondent Chris Arnold.


VANEK SMITH: You've done some truly amazing reporting over the last couple of years...

ARNOLD: Thank you. Thank you.

VANEK SMITH: ...On all parts of the economy, really, but especially on a lot of the kind of changing rules and issues around evictions and protections for renters.

ARNOLD: Right? I mean, there are still more than 8 million people behind on rent. It's like a huge crisis, you know, families facing eviction. And I'm doing a lot of stories about that. But I wanted to tell you guys today a different story, a story about how some landlords have really been struggling, too. And we don't think about this as much, but, you know, there's all kinds of landlords.

VANEK SMITH: It's not just big corporations.

ARNOLD: Not just big corporations, which sometimes are, you know, just pushing out families in the street when arguably they really shouldn't be. And that's all true. But still, about half of the rental units in the country are owned by more, like, mom and pops. And some of those landlords have been having a really hard time. And they're really struggling financially, too.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And, of course, there's been a lot of government assistance, like billions of dollars from Congress to help pay back rent and help people avoid evictions, which helps both renters and landlords. But getting that assistance can be complicated.

ARNOLD: Yeah. And in a lot of cases, it's because both the renter and the landlord have to work together to get this rental assistance money from Congress. And that means that if landlords don't play ball, renters can get stuck. But it also means in the other direction that landlords can also just get left holding the bag.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, like the bag of rent that's not paid, right?

ARNOLD: Yes, the bag of - the empty bag of unpaid rents, like tens of thousands of dollars of unpaid rent.

VANEK SMITH: So today on the show, we hear from some of the landlords who say things have been really tough these last couple of years, and they really need some help.


ARNOLD: About 10 years ago, Nitin Bajaj and his wife were starting a family and looking to buy a house.

VANEK SMITH: They had immigrated from Mumbai, India, to Los Angeles. Money was tight, but luckily they found this perfect place.

NITIN BAJAJ: It had a lot of deferred maintenance. The garage doors were busted in.

VANEK SMITH: The perfect house (laughter).

ARNOLD: It was a perfect house. I mean, you know, it was a fixer-upper. You know, there's rusted bars on the windows. And the yard was, like, overgrown with weeds that were chest high. And in those weeds, actually, he found an abandoned van.

BAJAJ: It was all pieces lying around, right? I would find a tire here and then a door there and a bumper here.

VANEK SMITH: So this was like a project, but it also had some earning potential. It was a small building with four apartments in it. So the couple could live in one of the apartments and then rent out the other three to help pay the mortgage. Nitin's wife, Nimisha Lotia, she was, you know, a little skeptical of this plan.

NIMISHA LOTIA: I was like, are you sure this is what we want to get? And he was like, trust me on this. This is going to be good for us.

ARNOLD: And over the years, they've slowly turned it into a nice home. They painted it, replaced all 42 of the windows and took the bars off. And they built a cool little cabin in the yard where the van used to be all dismantled and stuff. So, you know, like, looking at it now, it looks nice.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And, of course, you know, having kids, they wanted to be really careful about who they rented to. And so just before the pandemic, they found these two young women and they rented to them.

LOTIA: We gave them a tour of the apartment. And they were really nice, yes.

BAJAJ: Yeah, they were in their late 20s. And they told us that they want to be a part of our family and stuff like that. So we said, sure.

ARNOLD: But as soon as the pandemic hit, the new renters, they stopped paying the rent.

VANEK SMITH: And according to Nimisha, the young women, their renters, just sent over an email saying that COVID had created a financial hardship and that the city had just imposed an eviction ban.

LOTIA: No further explanation, no calls or nothing, just an email, and I think a snapshot of what the city rule was.

ARNOLD: She's not sure if the renters like, really lost their jobs or not. They worked in health care administration. But things definitely started to get weird after that. The renters, like, stopped talking to them on their way in and out of the house.

BAJAJ: Yeah. You know, they didn't make eye contact.

VANEK SMITH: And Nitin and Nimisha should say that went on for a couple weeks.

LOTIA: Then I lost my job due to COVID, and that was a major hit as well because there were two streams of income that just stopped coming in.

ARNOLD: Nitin works for an education nonprofit, so all of a sudden, they were really struggling financially.

VANEK SMITH: And, of course, while all this was happening, Congress had created a COVID relief bill that included a way for a lot of small landlords to skip mortgage payments for more than a year if their renters couldn't pay.

ARNOLD: Right. And some landlords were able to take advantage of that, but others, like, worried, all right, well, there is this note on your credit report. And what if down the road that makes it hard for me to get a loan? So some didn't take the help for that reason.

VANEK SMITH: And in Nitin and Nimisha's case, they were trying to get green cards. And they got worried about rules that had been put in place under former President Trump that could block green cards for immigrants who accepted public benefits.

ARNOLD: So to be able to keep paying their mortgage, the couple rented out their own apartment, you know, where they lived in that four-unit building. And they scooped up their kids, and they moved 80 miles away to a much cheaper house out in the desert. Nimisha says it was, like, so hot that the kids couldn't even go outside.

LOTIA: They were very angry with us because they're just 9 and 11, so leaving their friends, their lives just completely changed, like, upside down within a couple weeks.

VANEK SMITH: And, of course, while this was happening, more than 20 million people around the country had lost their jobs. Many were falling behind in rent, and pressure was growing on Congress to do something.

ARNOLD: And last December, lawmakers approved billions of dollars in emergency rental assistance. This is money to pay back rent. That was going to help renters and landlords, too.

BAJAJ: So it was great to hear, and I started looking for information.

VANEK SMITH: But Nitin says his renters still weren't paying rent. And they also had a lot of complaints at that time. Apparently, they even called the city inspector because they didn't like how the new dishwasher was working.

LOTIA: I was just appalled. And I was like, seriously, one is like - I'm already going through so much and that was adding to it. There was so much more stress.

ARNOLD: We reached out repeatedly to the renters to try to interview them too, but they didn't respond.

VANEK SMITH: So eventually, this past spring, the rental assistance program in Los Angeles got up and running. And Nitin says he was told that his renters needed to supply some documents.

BAJAJ: So we reached out to the tenants and said, hey, could you guys please do that? And they just - they would just not talk.

ARNOLD: Finally, in July, the renters left unexpectedly and in the middle of the night.

VANEK SMITH: Nimisha remembers walking through the apartment the morning after they left.

LOTIA: And when I reach the kitchen, I notice, why does this look so open, like, empty? And then I realize, oh, the fridge is missing, then, oh, my God, the other appliances are missing as well.

ARNOLD: She says they stole the gas stove, even the dishwasher that they had complained to the city about.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. And, of course, on top of the missing appliances, Nitin and Nimisha say they were out $32,000 in back rent that these young women owed. And so, you know, as you might imagine, they have been calling the city rental assistance program trying to get reimbursed for that $32,000.

BAJAJ: We spoke to 17 different agents, two supervisors. It was very frustrating to not get any kind of answer.

VANEK SMITH: To be clear, the system has been working for a lot of people. So far, about 2 million households have gotten their back rent paid, which is upwards of $10 billion.

ARNOLD: But for landlords like Nitin and Nimisha, where their renters for whatever reason are not cooperating and applying for the help, they're just out of luck.

VANEK SMITH: The Treasury Department does say it's working on a solution, but it's tricky, in part because if landlords don't need a renter in the mix, what is going to stop them from just evicting a ton of people and then later collecting all of that back rent?

ARNOLD: Right. I mean, this is supposed to be an eviction prevention program, so that would be a pretty bad eviction prevention program, right? And also, on top of that, might make fraud easier to pull off.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. And Nimisha understands that, but she says they need to figure out a fix here, especially since federal, state and local governments imposed eviction bans throughout much of the pandemic. It's only fair that landlords in a situation like this be able to get their money from the government.

LOTIA: You just cannot be black and white, like, we're not just going to help the landlords at all.

ARNOLD: So the couple is hoping that, one way or another, the rules here are going to be changed so that they can recoup their $32,000 in back rent, which would help them buy a new refrigerator for their rental unit.


VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin, with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. Our senior producer is Viet Le. The show is edited by Kate Concannon. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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