It’s a hell of a time to try and open a restaurant.
That’s what Steven Kresena was thinking last week as he watched Austin Mayor Steve Adler order all restaurants and bars to close to diners in an attempt to stall the spread of the coronavirus. Kresena had just inspected the tile in his new restaurant, Ovenbird, which was set to open on South Congress this month.
His girlfriend, meanwhile, had been laid off from her job at Odd Duck, a high-end restaurant on South Lamar. The couple had $500 a week coming in from what was left of the seed money for Kresena’s now-shuttered, never-opened restaurant, but they weren’t sure how long that would last.
“Financially, I’m freaking out,” Kresena said. “Can we pay rent this month and if so, can we do it the month after that?”
Then the couple got an email from the company that manages their one-bedroom apartment in South Austin.
“Thank you for being a resident of Ely Properties. We hope that you and your family are doing well in these unprecedented times,” began the note, a copy of which was shared with KUT.
“Thank you for understanding the coronavirus pandemic in no way changes your legal obligations to pay your rent. These trying times will be hard on all of us, but we see this ending soon and look forward to life returning to normal.”
Kresena said the letter felt “heartless.”
A representative for Ely Properties said in an email that the company didn't intend for the letter to sound insensitive. He said the company wasn't aware of Kresena’s financial hardship and that it would be working with each tenant on a “case-by-case basis.”
Kresena, who said he had never missed a rent payment, was expecting something else in that original email: a little more empathy.
“It’s not like we’re looking to skate by here. But some kind of a payment plan or a deferral of some kind [would have been nice],” he said. “We’re happy to contribute, obviously, because we live here.”
Just over half of Austin residents rent their homes and, compared with homeowners in the city, tend to be lower-income. They work in service jobs, pay for which has dried up as restaurants have closed, and in low-wage jobs without paid time off.
To put it lightly, renters have been hit hard by the economic impacts of the spread of COVID-19.
There has been some relief in the Austin area. Evictions are not being heard by Travis County courts, although landlords can still file them. And on Thursday, City Council members will vote to stall even eviction filings, essentially giving residential and commercial renters 60 days before landlords can take legal action for unpaid rent.
Landlords and property managers have been offering tenants rent deferrals and payment plans, according to emails shared with KUT. Others, like the manager of Kresena’s apartment, are asking for rent to be paid in full. Others have said little.
Emily Blair, the executive vice president of the Austin Apartment Association, said her group's message to landlords has been to say something: “Communication, communication, communication.”
“Communicate expectations, whether it’s about amenity closures and those sorts of things,” Blair said. “[Make] sure that residents are in the know about what is happening on their property.”
While the federal government has ordered mortgage lenders to be flexible with homeowners financially affected by the pandemic, relief for renters is uncertain. Plus, landlords likely won’t benefit from the breaks afforded to traditional mortgage borrowers, making it harder to pass on relief to their tenants.
For small-time landlords, with less potential revenue, this is worrying.
Liza Wimberley and her sister rent out three homes and a fourplex to families in Austin. Wimberley said she has tenants, including a fitness instructor and a teacher, who likely have lost wages because of the coronavirus.
“We’re bracing ourselves for the emails to start: ‘We can’t make rent,'” she said. “We have a tentative plan that we’re going to let people not pay for a month and then reevaluate where we are after that.”
Blair says the Texas Apartment Association last week recommended that their landlord members offer tenants payment plans and temporarily waive late fees. But the association hasn’t prescribed what a payment plan should look like.
A renter in North Austin shared with KUT a copy of the plan offered by his management company. (The renter asked to stay anonymous out of fear of retaliation by the property manager.)
A renter would first need to qualify for the payment plan by providing proof that they had applied for “all governmental benefits or subsidies.” If the tenant is then approved, they will be expected to pay 30% of their April rent, with the remainder divided between May and June and due – along with their regular rent – on the first of the month.
Advocates recommend that if tenants accept a rental-deferment plan, they should make sure the agreement is in writing. Above all, though, they recommend tenants pay rent in full, if they're able.
“Rent will eventually need to be paid,” said Shoshana Krieger, project director of Building and Strengthening Tenant Action, or BASTA. “We have heard from tenants a lot of rumors circulating that they don’t need to pay April rent, that there’s a moratorium on rents. That is not the case and that could put families at more risk if they are not paying their rent.”
James Donnelly is one of those people who is not sure they’ll be able to pay April rent.
“I don't know what my next checks are going to look like,” they said.
Donnelly's monthly pay has been cut by more than half; while they normally works 32 hours a week at Radio Coffee and Beer, they’re now working no more than 12.
When Donnelly wrote to Roscoe Properties, the company that manages their apartment building, they hoped to hear about a payment plan option or that late fees would be waived. So, they were surprised to get a response with a reminder that rent was still due.
“With concern towards rent payments, this is still under evaluation and if there is any decision made we will reach out and notify our residents," the message read. "Rent is expected at this time to be paid as normal. Again, thank you for your understanding and please take every action to keep yourself healthy as possible during this time!"
Roscoe Properties told KUT on Wednesday that the company sent out new information to tenants asking them to inform the company whether they’d lost wages and that they could work out a payment plan.
But Donnelly still worries about the long-term economic impact on tenants in the building, many of whom have reportedly lost jobs because of the effects of the coronavirus.
“Some of these places aren’t going to re-open up,” Donnelly said. “Maintaining that consistent income is a threat for a lot of us.”
And it's a hell of a time to try and find a job, they said.
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