Small landlords struggle as renters either can’t or choose not to pay amid coronavirus layoffs

Real Estate

Taylor Denchfield has been flipping homes since he was 17.

Source: Taylor Denchfield

As job losses climb into the millions due to the coronavirus pandemic, laid-off workers increasingly can’t make the rent. That’s also bad news for small landlords.

Unlike large real estate companies and REITs that own multiple rental buildings, small, so-called “mom and pop” landlords have neither the cash nor the credit availability to cover their costs when the rent runs out.

There are about 8 million individual landlords in the United States, meaning those who typically own between one and 10 properties. They own and manage half the rental properties in the nation and house about 48 million renters, according to Avail, a software company that sells them the type of online rental platforms used by larger landlords.

Avail conducted a survey in late March of over 3,000 mom-and-pop landlords and over 7,000 tenants who rent from them. More than half (54%) of the renters said they had already lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak, and of those about a third said that if they couldn’t afford to, they would simply stop paying rent. Some said they would look to family and friends for help, while others said they didn’t know what they would do. 

That will leave millions of landlords in the lurch. Most have mortgages on their properties, and while some can apply for the government’s forbearance program, that doesn’t cover all of their expenses.

Most small landlords don’t make a ton of money from rent payments, said Laurence Jankelow, co-founder of Avail. They use that to cover their costs. They are banking on the appreciation of the properties for future gains.

“The expenses they have to pay for maintenance on the building — there’s no forbearance on paying your utility bill,” he said.

Taylor Denchfield owns about a dozen single-family rental properties in Maryland. He is starting to get calls from tenants already and is trying to deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

“There is virtually zero assistance for middle-of-the-road landlords. The federal stimulus package, and various state legislation, contain assistance for individuals, and for businesses in the form of grants and loans, but little to no relief for property owners,” said Denchfield.

While laid-off workers will get stimulus checks from the federal CARES Act, as well as enhanced unemployment benefits, Denchfield is worried that some tenants will just not pay the rent because most states have instituted a stay on evictions.

“What I believe we will see is in addition to the tenants that truly cannot pay during this time, there will be a number of tenants who are chronically behind that will simply refuse to pay because they know they cannot be evicted,” he said.

“To date, the only help available to landlords is the ability to take losses greater than $500,000 in this tax year, and if you have a Fannie or Freddie backed loan, you can receive a one year payment holiday.  However, there remains no assistance for property owners like myself who either own properties debt free, or have balance sheet bank loans.”

No access to credit

Most small landlords do not have access to credit to cover their costs from lost rent payments. More than half (58%) said they did not have access to any lines of credit that might help them in an emergency, according to Avail.

Vipin Motwani is a larger Maryland and D.C. landlord with about 40 rental properties, but nowhere near the size of big rental companies. He is also getting calls from his tenants.

“We’re sitting back and waiting for renters to call if they’re having hardship. We’re going to allow them to pay their rent with a credit card and we’re waiving all the credit card fees. We are not going to be filing for failure to pay rent. That won’t hit their credit score and it won’t be sent to the court,” said Motwani, who heads Iron Gate Development.

He is also trying to get creative, seeing if tenants can pay about a third of their rent now and then spread the rest over the next six months.

“We’re trying to work with them but we want to know what they need,” he added.

And that’s another problem for small landlords: Communication. More than 60% of renters who lost their jobs due to coronavirus did not contact their landlords, according to the Avail survey.

 Motwani is working with his larger lenders to see if he can miss some mortgage payments if he needs to, but not with the smaller banks.

 ”Community banks proactively reached out. I’ve not asked for deferring with them because those are relationship-based. If I don’t need to, I’m not going to ask for forbearance,” he said.

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