News

A Housing Quagmire

April 12th, 2020

Read the full article at The LA Times

By Liam Dillon and Andrew Khouri

Over the last month, millions of Californians have lost their jobs because of orders to stay at home and close nonessential businesses to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Both tenants and landlords have faced sudden losses in income and new fears about what will happen to their homes and properties. According to a new estimate by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, almost 1 million renter households in the Los Angeles metro area have likely experienced a job loss or had wages cut. Federal, state and local governments have passed measures to prevent evictions and provide mortgage assistance with the expectation that many tenants won’t be able to pay their rent. But the patchwork of rules has led to confusion, and in many cases has failed to relieve worries about missed rent and mortgage payments. Some landlords are pressuring their tenants for financial documentation or to agree to rent repayment plans that are more onerous than required by law. 

The Times spoke with eight landlords and tenants across Los Angeles County to understand how they’re coping with the fallout from the coronavirus. The interviews, presented in their own words, have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

LANDLORDS

Melanie Streitfeld, 66, Rancho Palos Verdes

When I got married, my husband was a real estate broker and also an attorney. We worked together in our law firm, but we started investing in real estate as kind of a side thing.

At one time we had 13 properties. My husband passed away, and then with the financial crisis in 2008 I had to sell off. I have seven properties now. Three houses in Riverside County, a house in Harbor City, an apartment building in Sherman Oaks, my own home and a condo in Long Beach.

I have two part-time jobs as a retired person. I lost both of those jobs. In February I broke my leg, and I was told not to come back until I was 100%. Then everything was closed down.

I am still doing OK. I am just really cutting back. I don’t drive, so I am saving a lot of money on gas, and my insurance company is cutting our premiums, I think, 15%. But I really have to watch it. I can’t spend any extra money on anything.

Fortunately, on April 1, all my tenants were able to pay their rent. But I am very concerned as to how long this goes.

Landlords are always being treated like the big, bad rich guy that is greedy, and that’s not the case.

I can’t stress myself. I am 66 years old and I’m at an age where stress will kill. I just don’t want to think about it because I don’t know what I am going to do if people don’t pay.

Darryl Marshak, 64, Los Angeles

I became a landlord because I will be 65 in May. After I got divorced, I bought a multifamily place in Mid-City. I knew my Social Security checks would only help me so much, so I was hoping the rent would.

I got in way over my head. Being a landlord is a hard job. I bought this broken-down multiunit place, and I put everything I had into it. I have two two-bedrooms and like about three other little studio things, and they are filled up. I live on site.

They are like my children, these people. So when this thing hit, I was like: “Oh my God, I know what they are going through.” None of them are wealthy people. One of them is a server in a restaurant. Another one is an events coordinator. I don’t know if they will get their jobs back again, because their employers don’t know what to do.

People were very late on the rent. But I didn’t bust them for it. I just said do what you can. We’ve all got to work together. I have collected about 85% for my April rent. I am really worried about May.

I can’t afford them not paying rent. I have two mortgage payments worth of money to my name. I might have to sell; I might have to take in a partner that has money to ride it out. I don’t know.

Diana Bustamante, 41, La Puente

I just started being a landlord, officially in August.

I was fortunate enough to buy a house and that area where my property is — City Terrace — has really taken off. So I decided to take the equity in that house to purchase another home. I live in La Puente now and decided to use that as a rental, the City Terrace one.

It’s horrible for everyone. I feel a lot for my renters. The last message I received was that they had to spend their rent money for food.

I don’t own that property outright. I still have a mortgage on it. So when they can’t pay rent, I have to cover that mortgage. I think I can go for four months if I just use my savings. The salary I make pays both mortgages. It just takes the entire salary. There would be like $200 left.

I have been trying to cut back on things that are not essential and try to figure out a way to pay all the bills that are coming in. The scary thing for me is not knowing when this is going to end.

I always knew I was taking a risk by becoming a landlord. There are so many things that could go wrong.

What I didn’t plan for and what is so unnerving is the fact that I have no alternatives.

I don’t want my renters to end up homeless. I most definitely don’t want to evict them during this national crisis.

The reality, however, is that I might be forced to sell the house and that they may end up without a place to live anyway. So how is that a safety net for the renters?

Jason Reid, 48, Los Angeles

I was a real estate appraiser for years before the market crashed in 2008. When the markets did crash, I thought being a landlord seemed like a pretty good income generator for the long haul.

I own three properties. One is a single-family home, one is a townhouse and one is a small one-bedroom condo. At present, two of them are current on rent. The one property here in Los Angeles is where the tenant has not been able to pay.

I think probably for the next month or two, even if the others were to follow suit and not be able to pay, I could probably come out of pocket and be OK. Beyond that it’s pretty scary.

I already have checked with the banks and credit unions which hold my mortgages and, fortunately, they are all offering some version of a deferral. From my understanding, they would just tack those missed payments onto the back of the loan, which I appreciate.

However, I have to pay those and it’s not as though I am ever going to recoup that from the current tenants.

If I got a single gal in the Los Angeles property who can’t afford her rent this month because she hasn’t been working, the idea that she is, in a couple of months, going to be back to work and be able to make up for several missed rent payments is ridiculous.

Ultimately, that means the landlords are going to be left holding the bag.

I certainly don’t mind taking a couple of licks myself. I think that is probably fair. As a property owner, it’s one of the risks I get to shoulder. I don’t mind losing out on any income I might generate, but I would at least like to have the mortgage payments forgiven.

My plan is to hunker down, pinch pennies where I can.

TENANTS

Arno Safarian, 37, Burbank

It’s me and my mom and my dad. Both my parents are cancer patients. They’re both recovering right now, but everything is still ongoing.

I’m an Uber driver. My dad, he’s a cab driver. My mom, whenever she can, she does hair. Because of the whole coronavirus situation and the economy shutting down, my dad’s cab company shut down.

At the end of February, I started getting symptoms. No one was really talking much about it. I called the hospital and they told me not to go in. They told me to quarantine myself. I asked them for how long. They said two weeks.

Since both of my parents are in the high-risk category for the coronavirus, I just locked myself in the bedroom and they would leave me food in front of the door. Then my dad got the symptoms. Whatever money I had made up to that point, we had to pay to get him into a hotel so he wouldn’t end up getting my mom sick. We paid about $2,200 for his two-week stay. That really took a financial toll on us.

By the time I came out of self-isolation, I was logging in to Uber and it was nothing. I’ve been trying to do Instacart lately. That’s kind of helping.

Up until March 31, I was trying to figure out if I could borrow money from family or friends to try to put something together for the rent. Everyone I was talking to was in the same position.

The landlord said that if I’m not going to be paying any of the rent, I have to provide him with three months of bank statements. I’d have to give him proof of having applied for unemployment benefits.

I don’t understand why he’s asking for bank statements. He knows we’re independent contractors. How am I supposed to get a letter from Uber?

I haven’t been able to pay anything. The landlord just sent me another email yesterday. I’m just trying to maintain myself in front of my parents because I don’t want them worrying. They ask me every day, “Is everything OK? What’s going to happen?” I always tell them, “Don’t worry about it. I have everything under control.” But the truth is, it’s full-blown anxiety right now for me.

Kinga Basinska, 34, Palms

I work in fashion. As the industry has been hit hard with everything, we did some layoffs and furloughs and a companywide 20% pay reduction, which affected me. It is a lot of money.

I was thinking that maybe I should just contact my landlord. I can afford it now, but if this situation gets worse, then eventually I would have to move out, find a roommate or maybe move to a studio.

So I emailed the property manager. I was so shocked. They said the landlord doesn’t offer any rent reduction at the moment and then sent me a link to the unemployment website. Then I was actually furloughed. Now I actually have a reason not to pay rent.

I understand there’s this whole chain and he obviously has his bills to pay and there might be a loan against his place. But I never came to him and said I’m not going to pay. I just said can you help me out because we all have to survive and live together. I’ve already paid for April. I don’t know what to do with the next month.

I was always thinking that I was going to be one of these people that was never going to be affected by all of this. I always thought that I’m college educated. I have a job and a lot of work experience. I’ve never struggled in my life. And now, oh my God.

I’ve worked really hard to be where I am. It kind of feels like it’s kind of all falling down.

Alexis Rosen, 31, La Crescenta

I grew up in the Inland Empire. I moved to L.A. for graduate school to get my master’s degree in clinical psychology. I opened up my own private practice about a year and a half ago. Thankfully, my practice was doing well enough where I could spend about $1,600 max on rent. I found this place in La Crescenta. It’s a back house, kind of up in the hills.

On March 16, I switched my business to telehealth, 100% online. Over the 48 hours after that is when everything crashed.

I had clients who said, “I just got laid off from my job.” Others, because they’re in a small house or apartment, said, “I can’t do telehealth over the phone because I don’t have any privacy.” Others who said, “I do have a job, but I’m really panicked so I need to save money.” And others who just kind of fell off.

I reached out to my landlord. Come the 24th of March, I sent another email. The 30th rolled around. I sent out my rent check in full. On March 31, I contacted my landlord again, saying I absolutely have to hear from you. That’s when they responded.

I was appalled. They wanted me to ask my family and friends for rent money. My friends are out of jobs. And they encouraged me to take out a loan. I have $100,000 in student loan debt. I’m trying so, so hard not to put myself in any more debt. Thank God, having a brother who is a lawyer, he drafted a letter that I’m going to send mid-month saying I’m going to pay you $1,000 and attaching the governor’s eviction ban to it.

Like everyone else, I’m panicked. I’m anxious. I think for me, and I know for all the people that I speak to, it feels like the virus is almost secondary.

Blanca Dueñas, 61, East Los Angeles

I work part time as a community organizer. I also volunteer to better the schools and for rent control.

I live with my son. He’s 35 years old. He pays for almost all the expenses. He works for a company that buys organic produce and sells it to restaurants and hotels. He goes to the ranches where they cultivate the vegetables, buys them and brings them back to Los Angeles.

His boss has given him some money, but it’s not his entire salary. He has a good boss.

I spoke with our property manager and I think she understands the situation that all of us are in. The landlords are in the same situation as we are because everyone is in this pandemic. She said, “It’s OK, Blanca. I know that you pay on time and that this isn’t common for you and your family. We’ll accept what you can pay for now. And when this is over, we’ll figure things out.”

We paid more than half the rent. But this is the first month. For the next one, I don’t know how we’re going to do it.

I have 11 grandchildren. Two of them, the children of my son, live with us, too. Another worry I have is that they announced there’s not going to be school until next year. We don’t have internet. We don’t have a tablet or computer.

We’ve run out of many necessities. We’ve run out of bath soap. We’ve run out of cooking oil. We’ve run out of tortillas.

In truth, for me, it’s really important to pay the telephone bill because it’s the only means of communication we have right now. It’s the way I talk to my daughters and see how they’re doing. I’m really worried that I’m not going to be able to pay for it.

So I’m much more than afraid. I’m panicked.

The LA Times

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