UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Sterling Lunsford (ph) lives in Dayton, Ohio. He's 65. And for the last 15 years, he's been a baker for Panera Bread.
STERLING LUNSFORD: The work was hard. I mean, it's hard, long hours. You go in at 10 o'clock at night, then you wouldn't get off till sometimes 6 or 7 in the morning according to how much you had to do. But it was a good job. It kept me busy and everything.
VANEK SMITH: Sterling says he almost never calls in sick. But one day in early April, he started feeling really strange.
LUNSFORD: I couldn't hardly breathe. My chest was so tight, I thought I needed some oxygen or whatever. And I called and let them know I would have to go through the emergency 'cause it was just that bad.
VANEK SMITH: Sterling went to the emergency room and was immediately put on oxygen. He spent several days in the hospital before they sent him home. But he was still really weak, not in any shape to go to work.
LUNSFORD: Walking from my apartment just around the corner to the corner store was - it was an impossible task. I had to stop three or four times just to get there.
VANEK SMITH: Sterling got in touch with his supervisor at Panera just to check in.
LUNSFORD: She texts me back that I was terminated. Now, I've got that - I've got the text on my phone, the very phone that I'm talking on right now. I've got that text from her.
VANEK SMITH: She sent that in a text?
LUNSFORD: I've got it on my phone. I've got it on my phone right now.
VANEK SMITH: After 15 years at Panera, Sterling was laid off in a text message. Sterling says a lot of his co-workers were laid off, too. We reached out to Panera, but they declined to comment. All of this left Sterling in a pretty awful situation. He didn't have much savings. And, suddenly, he had no income. He had to buy all this medication. His health insurance was now in question because he'd lost his job. His unemployment checks still have not come. Sterling says they keep asking for more forms to be faxed, but he does not have a fax machine or a printer. Meanwhile, the bills from the doctor's office, from the power company, from everywhere just kept coming.
LUNSFORD: I'm barely making it. I have no real income to speak of. I was making decisions, like, do I get my medication today, put food in the house, or do I go without rent or whatever?
VANEK SMITH: Rent is Sterling's biggest expense. It's $425 a month. And he just couldn't pay it. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, this question was running through Sterling's head again and again, a question that really scared him.
LUNSFORD: How am I going to make my rent?
VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show - rent. More than 38 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last few months. We're looking at the worst unemployment level we've seen since the Great Depression. And in many cases, unemployment checks have been very slow in coming. About a third of renters reportedly did not pay their rent last month. Some states have put anti-eviction orders in place, but many haven't, including Ohio, where Sterling lives. So people like Sterling are on their own to try to negotiate a deal with their landlords. And landlords and property owners are panicking because many of their tenants just can't pay rent. And now they are staring down bills and debts of their own.
When Sterling Lunsford realized that he wouldn't be able to pay his rent, he went to his building managers, these two women. He said, I lost my job. My unemployment check hasn't come. I can't pay my rent next month.
LUNSFORD: One of the main concerns, one of the stress factors in my life was, how am I going to make my rent?
VANEK SMITH: We found the owner of Sterling's building, Gary Zarumba (ph). He owns about 400 units in Dayton, Ohio. Gary says a lot of his tenants are in Sterling's position right now. More than a third of his tenants did not pay their full rent last month, and he's expecting that that will get worse. He says, in the meantime, he has to make mortgage payments to the bank. And he has a lot of bills that he is suddenly struggling to pay. Gary has about 15 employees, and a lot of them are people who have worked with him for years.
GARY ZARUMBA: One of the things I am proud of of my experience in Dayton is that I created a bunch of jobs, you know? I'm quite proud of the business that I co-created with the employees. I have people there since the beginning, still.
VANEK SMITH: Gary does not want to lay anybody off or cut anybody's pay. But he says he is getting more worried by the day. He says he's worried about this movement to shut down eviction courts, that maybe people will get the message that rent is optional. And in the meantime, his bills will keep coming.
ZARUMBA: You're asking me as a private sector to become part of the public sector by providing free housing. That's kind of what's going on because we don't want people evicted. They have no place to go. They end up homeless or on a neighbor's couch, et cetera. So I understand the concept. But I'm being asked to do the job of the government, and I'm not getting reimbursed for it. So some folks are just not paying their rent because they don't have to. They know they're not getting evicted.
VANEK SMITH: Gary says he's really trying to work with the tenants who've been hit by the coronavirus pandemic and the economic shutdown, people like Sterling Lunsford, who had never been late on rent or missed a payment but was suddenly having to go to his apartment building managers, Gary's employees, and say, I don't have money this month for rent.
LUNSFORD: And so I went to them and talked to them. They said, Sterling, don't worry. You just take your time. Get it together. We know you're under a lot of pressure and this, that and the other thing with your job and all of that.
VANEK SMITH: Not only that, Sterling says the apartment building managers let him use their printer and fax machine to help him get all of his paperwork to the unemployment office. Still, Sterling says he just didn't like owing rent. It wasn't sitting well with him, so he went to the one source of money he had left.
LUNSFORD: I was so desperate, I cashed in on my 401(k).
VANEK SMITH: Sterling had been saving up that money for years. It was his retirement, but it was the money he had. And so the second he got the money from his 401(k), Sterling paid his rent and a couple of months' rent in advance. Also, he said he wanted to talk to Gary Zarumba, the owner of his building.
ZARUMBA: Yes, good morning.
LUNSFORD: Good morning. Are you the owner, Gary?
LUNSFORD: OK. Well, I'm kind of glad I get an opportunity to talk to you like this because you have a wonderful staff. And they have been extremely helpful in this situation that I'm going through. I really appreciate it. You don't know how much I do. They made what has been a pretty rough time for me much easier to bear, sir, so...
ZARUMBA: Well, I'm glad to hear that, you know? I'm glad that we're able to help you stay in your place and navigate this tough time. And, you know, we're the landlords, but we're also people. And we want to make sure that, you know, we're taking care of our tenants in the ways that we can.
LUNSFORD: And like I said, I want to make sure that you say something to those ladies over there at the office because I tell them all the time how much I appreciate them. But I think once you let them know what a good job they're doing, they'll appreciate it more.
ZARUMBA: Thank you. I will make sure I do that today.
LUNSFORD: Yes, sir. Please do.
VANEK SMITH: Sterling and Gary are in this weird position, where they are both suddenly depending on the government for their livelihoods. The government ordered an economic shutdown, which cost Sterling his job. And now Sterling is waiting on the government to pay him the unemployment he was promised by Congress in the CARES Act. Gary is waiting for that money in the form of Sterling's rent and the rent of his other tenants to be able to pay his mortgage to the bank. And the bank is waiting on that money. And investors are waiting on that money. And the entire economy is kind of waiting on that money to stabilize the millions of businesses and people who have all had their lives turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.
One rent check is kind of a link in a chain that connects the entire economy. But the most vulnerable person in that chain, the person with the most at stake, is Sterling Lunsford, who is still having trouble breathing and who is still waiting for his unemployment check. And for him, time is running out.
LUNSFORD: Within the next 30 to 60 days, I'll be completely broke. I won't have any money at all, no income, no work, no anything. Within the next 60 days, if I don't get something coming in like that unemployment or something, I'm going to be broke.
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VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan. THE INDICATOR's edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.
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