MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Michel Martin. I'm also the host of weekend All Things Considered on NPR. If you're out of work or struggling to pay rent right now because of COVID-19, you're not the only one. But that doesn't make it any easier. This episode of LIFE KIT, we're talking about what you need to know if you can't pay your rent.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: There's a new nationwide moratorium on evictions. But you've got to qualify. And you need to know who to go to for help if you're behind on payments. So to help me make sense of this and understand what tenants should know, I spoke with Jeniece Jones, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Greater Cincinnati. Jeniece Jones, welcome. Thanks for joining us.
JENIECE JONES: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So can you just talk me through this moratorium? What does it do?
JONES: Well, it's completely novel and unique in its form and scope from anything that a lot of housing folks that have been in this work a very long time have ever seen. But essentially, what it does, it allows tenants to make a declaration under penalty of perjury that they have taken steps to try to make their rent under the COVID era that we currently live in. And they just haven't been able to do it.
So it lets them make this declaration and present it to property management. And essentially, this halts or causes a moratorium to come into effect that lasts until the end of the year. That said, we say, you know, read this very carefully. Look at the seven points they're asking you to declare. And, you know, ensure that you meet those requirements before signing and presenting this to, you know, your property management, your landlord or court, you know, wherever you might use this.
MARTIN: What are some of the requirements? You have to make under a certain amount? You can't pay rent because of COVID? What are some of the requirements?
JONES: Well, you know, it's that you certify under penalty of perjury that you've made the best efforts to obtain some government assistance for rent or housing, that if you're a single person, you make under $99,000 in annual income. Or if you're a couple filing jointly, it's $198,000. And you're certifying that you are unable to make your full rent due to substantial loss of income, you know, related to COVID or that you have, you know, out-of-pocket medical expenses and a couple of other things that it asks you to really read carefully. And you're certifying, you know, each question as you go through the form. And then you're signing and dating at the end.
MARTIN: OK. So even if this moratorium stays in place, can landlords still go through with evictions?
JONES: Well, yes, because this is only for non-payment of rent. So you know, if this is challenged in some way because the agency order is not proper, you know, that's another question. But, you know, if there's issues around property damage or, you know, hold-over tenancy or other things not having anything to do with payment of rent, then a landlord could still conceivably file an eviction and have that eviction move through the courts.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Have you seen evidence of where landlords are still trying to evict people even when local moratoriums have been in place? I mean, anecdotally we've been hearing stories about people turning the water off or turning the electricity off or changing the locks. Have you seen that?
JONES: Yes. I mean, unfortunately, that's something that, you know, we would see in the ordinary course before COVID. But, you know, since COVID, you know, that's something we're definitely keeping an eye out. We're listening to our local residents that call us. And what kind of stories are they telling us in terms of, you know, like you said, lockouts, loss of utilities or having the utilities turn out, you know, some type of harassment, you know, having to do with, you know, where's the rent? Where's the rent - or, (laughter) you know, something - the nature of the entire situation just really being stressful and, you know, a lot of it coming to head. And so we've had an uptick in just, you know, landlord-tenant disputes that we've tried to help folks work through. But it's definitely - this whole situation has taken a toll on the residential housing market.
MARTIN: So do you have some advice to tenants who are behind on rent? You started to share some of that. Give us some tips.
JONES: So we say, you know, try to pay your rent. Try in some way to pay your rent or work out something where you're going to pay the rent because what this doesn't do is forgive the rent. So at the end of this, you're going to owe all that back rent. And then the landlord can, according to this declaration, ask for it all at once. And, you know, that's a nonstarter for a lot of families. Secondly, you know, explore and see if there's any type of rental assistance or rental aid you might qualify in your community.
This mentions specific government aid where some local jurisdictions have put out, you know, government aids through CARES Act dollars or other local support dollars for rent assistance. And it asks you to certify that you made all - you know, due effort to try to get some type of local rent assistance. Whatever jurisdiction that they're in, you know, research, you know, their local United Ways, city, county government, to see if there's a rent assistance option that's available to them.
MARTIN: Do you have any sense of whether most people actually know who their landlord is? I mean, I can see if you're in a situation where, you know, you've got a private individual who owns some apartments or some townhouses or some - or a building. And that's the person you make your check out to. But if all you deal with is a management company, like, how would you know what to do?
JONES: Well, I would say that the management company typically takes on the responsibility of collecting rent as part of their management contract. So this would, I would think, fall under that. So if you normally make your rent to, you know, a leasing office or a PO box or you - someone you deal with locally that's part of a property management group, you know, a property that may be owned locally or somewhere else, you know, I would say, clearly, that's the same person or folks that you need to make a connection with about this particular protection as well.
MARTIN: So what I think I hear you saying overall, Jeniece, is try not to be afraid. Like, don't hide. Like, try to face the situation, because you can imagine where if you're in a situation where you can't make rent, it's frightening. It's overwhelming. You're scared. Maybe you're embarrassed even if it's through no fault of your own - your hours have been cut. What I think I hear you saying is don't hide from the situation. Handle it.
JONES: Well, yeah. I mean, we would definitely say communication works best. We totally understand, you know, folks feeling overwhelmed and that they can't - you know, there's just a lot to manage right now. We say communication, in our experience, has been a way to resolve things more readily than, you know, ghosting the landlord or not communicating at all.
MARTIN: You can see a situation where people are intimidated. They might be embarrassed. They might not have, you know, ever been in a situation like this before. So are there some things you advise people to do if they - just to help them get over their fear? Do you - what do you suggest? Do you suggest people write a letter? Do you suggest that they, you know, call one of these groups and try to get an advocate to go with them? What do you suggest that people do to get started?
JONES: So we would suggest that if folks are feeling intimidated or overwhelmed by the process that they reach out to a group that can be an advocate. Now, this can be an agency like Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Greater Cincinnati or a local legal aid that can, you know, stand with them and help them, you know, talk through the process with the landlord to get something worked out so that there's an understanding, so that rent just doesn't keep piling up against the tenant.
If there's a work-out that can be done where there's partial payments, you know, that's better than nothing. They should keep a log and a ledger, hopefully put this agreement in writing. Stick to the agreement if at all possible. But, you know, do something affirmative, you know, with the landlord so that the lines of communication stay open. We feel that that's best.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: That was Jeniece Jones, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Greater Cincinnati. Jeniece Jones, thank you so much for speaking with us. This is very helpful.
JONES: Thanks, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got one about how to mail in your ballot this fall and how to get the most out of teletherapy. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, please, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. This episode was produced by Clare Lombardo. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. I'm Michel Martin. Thank you for listening.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.