The Week (US)
A year without rent
Eviction moratoriums have saved renters from homelessness in the pandemic, said journalist Eli Saslow in The Washington Post. But now small landlords, too, are desperately holding on to their livelihoods.
THE LANDLORD HAD highlighted the first of the month on his office calendar and marked it as “Pay Day,” but now the first had come and gone, the one-week grace period was ending, and for the 13th consecutive month, Romeo Budhoo had collected less than half of his total rent. “Time to try begging for it,” he said, and he grabbed his booklet of receipts and walked out to his car.
He drove through the low-income neighborhoods of Schenectady, N.Y., stopping at a half-dozen small homes that accounted for most of his income and all of his family’s savings. He cajoled $75 in cash from a laid-off hairdresser who owed him more than $7,000. “Thanks for at least trying to work with me,” he wrote on the rental receipt. He collected $200 from a renter who was $1,600 behind. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” Budhoo said, and then he continued up the street to his oldest property, a three-story home that had helped lift him into the middle class and was now sending him closer to bankruptcy.
Budhoo parked in front and flipped through his receipts. The tenant owed more than $12,000, and on the porch Budhoo saw a pile of warnings and eviction notices dating back almost a year.
“No more grace periods,” read one from last fall. “Pay now or leave.”
In the Covid economy of 2021, the federal government has created an ongoing grace period for renters until at least July, banning all evictions in an effort to hold back a historic housing crisis that is already underway. More than 8 million rental properties across the country are behind on payments by an average of $5,600, according to census data. Nearly half of those rental properties are owned not by banks or big corporations but instead by what the government classifies as “small landlords”— and a third of small landlords are at risk of bankruptcy or foreclosure as the pandemic continues into its second year.
For Budhoo, the essence of his problems came down to one house: 1042 Cutler St., a three-story square box built in 1901, with faded green siding and fresh graffiti spray-painted on the windows. The house had been sold four times out of foreclosure, condemned by the city, and scheduled for demolition when Budhoo first saw it after immigrating to New York from Guyana in the early 2000s. He’d worked at a nearby pick-and-pack warehouse for $8 an hour and saved up a small down payment toward a $79,000 purchase price. He’d rewired the electricity, gutted the plumbing, installed granite countertops, and begun renting it out for up to $950 per month. Gradually those profits had paid for more distressed properties, for his daughter’s college degree, and for a small home of his own where her diploma now hung above the entryway. He’d spent two decades growing his business on the first of each month until the pandemic hit upstate New York.
“Just a friendly reminder,” he’d written to the tenant, after the first missed payment in April 2020. “Good morning! Are you able to pay rent?” he’d written after the second month. “Please. I am willing to work with you,” he wrote after the government announced its first national eviction moratorium in September. “Really? You’re still not going to pay ANYTHING?” he wrote after he read about the billions of government dollars being spent in rental assistance, for which his tenant never applied.
Now it had been a full year without payment, and Budhoo had maxed his credit cards, applied for a secondary loan on his 2015 Mercedes-Benz, defaulted on $13,000 in property taxes, and started taking medication for panic attacks and stomach ulcers. “Final collection notice,” read one of the bills that had been delivered to his own front door, and he’d begun mowing people’s lawns and selling eggplants out of his garden to neighbors for a couple dollars each.
“This is robbery,” Budhoo had written. “What you’re doing now is stealing from me.” He got out of the car and walked around the outside of the house. He didn’t dare to knock, because the tenant had accused him of harassment and police had warned him about tenants’ rights and trespassing on his own property.
The yard was littered with a few empty cigarette packs, wrappers, and beer cans. Budhoo kicked a beer can across the yard but then walked over to pick it up. Even if he no longer had control over his properties, he was still legally responsible for their upkeep, and he’d been fined four times for his tenants’ trash violations. He took a trash bag out of his car and started cleaning up the yard.
LFONZO HILL WATCHED from inside the house until the landlord walked back to his car. “Yeah, like you need my money,” Hill said after he watched the landlord drive his Mercedes up the block, and then he came outside, lit a cigarette, and sat on the porch.
He resented many things about life at 1042 Cutler: the 2-foot hole in the bathroom ceiling, the lingering smell of the previous tenants’ dogs, the toilet that flushed only after he poured in a bucket of water. The broken furnace that had left the house so cold that the city had condemned it as unlivable. But what bothered him most was always having to repeat the same humiliations to the landlord about why he hadn’t paid, couldn’t pay, didn’t have any money to pay.
“Look, I don’t want to be living here, either,” Hill had told Budhoo at one point,
facturing jobs and a third of its population. The city at that time was blighted by thousands of vacant homes, and instead of spending $18,000 to demolish each one, the mayor had come up with a plan to go to New York City and recruit Guyanese immigrants who had built a reputation for fixing up derelict property. The mayor handed out his cellphone number and offered to sell houses for as little as $1, and more than 5,000 Guyanese began to move. They bought cheap homes, rehabbed them, rented them out, and then started paying property taxes that helped revive the city. only immediate solution Budhoo could think of was also the most unlikely, to collect the rent, so one morning he drove back to 1042 Cutler to try again. He parked his car and watched the front door. He sent a text message to his wife: “Nothing yet.” He listened to music and played a game on his phone until he’d been sitting in the car for almost half an hour. “Pathetic,” he said. “More time wasted, wasted, wasted.” He couldn’t go inside the house. He couldn’t demand rent. He couldn’t kick the tenant out. He couldn’t do much of anything but sit and wait and hope, until eventually out the windshield he noticed something happening a few blocks down the street. A woman was throwing clothing out of a house and onto the lawn. She carried a chair down the front stairs and put in on the sidewalk. It looked to Budhoo like an eviction, so he drove closer, parked, and walked up to the house.
“Are you the landlord?” he asked the woman, and she nodded. “Wow. Congratulations,” he said, gesturing at the trash piled up on the sidewalk. “I’ve been trying to get one of my houses back for more than a year. How’d you do it?”
“It’s not what you think,” the landlord said. “I didn’t evict. They just left.”
“Yeah, come on,” Budhoo said.
She laughed and then began to tell him about the ways she’d dealt with derelict tenants in the past year—how she applied pressure through eviction paperwork, stopped making repairs, filed suit in small claims court, and threatened to garnish wages until a few tenants chose to vacate on their own. “I like to be reasonable, but eventually it’s either my house or theirs,” she said, and this is what victory looked like: an empty house, a family that had disappeared overnight, 28 garbage bags piled high on the sidewalk, an overturned dresser with initials carved into its side, a child’s mattress soaked through by rain, and thousands of grains of rice scattered across the street. “I’ve been lucky,” she said. “I only rent to good people, and most have paid. It seems like every other landlord is going under, but I’m actually trying to invest. I’m looking to buy.”
Budhoo helped her pick up trash bags and then tossed them into an industrial dumpster. “I might have an opportunity for you,” he said, already feeling defeated by what he was about to suggest. “You know 1042 Cutler? It’s a good house. I can give you a good price.”