Bree Soper is in a bind.
She’s currently working from home, supporting her significant other and 3-year-old son by teleworking for a Missoula call center. Despite all the uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing, she’s determined to make the $780 rent payment she owes on April 1.
“In my future, I don’t want them to say, ‘She didn’t pay rent, she’s a horrible renter,'" she said this week. “But I’m scared when I do pay rent, I’ll be in a puddle of what bills to pay next.”
Renters occupy more than half of Missoula’s housing units, and many of them are facing hard choices by COVID-19 forced business closures and staff reductions. As rent bills come due next week, they’re calling for help.
“I’m just hearing from all kinds of people,” said Jordan Lyons, director of the Associated Students of the University of Montana Renter Center, which offers support to student renters. “We put a post on our blog about how to communicate with your landlord if you can’t pay the rent, and it caught on like wildfire.”
“I’m a former property manager,” he continued, “and I worked for housing providers during the Great Recession ... At that time it was business as usual, it seems like, for landlords. I didn’t perceive landlords cutting people slack.”
This time around, tenants are once again feeling anxious.
Soper, among eight local tenants who shared concerns about paying rent with the Missoulian, rents through Summit Property Management and doesn’t know who her landlord is. Aaron Gingerelli, Summit’s president, said that the company only serves as an intermediary between tenants and property owners; it doesn’t own the properties outright. He said that a handful of renters “have reached out that there may be a problem with April rent.”
“We have in turn communicated that to our property owner clients, and those situations are just being worked through to see how we might arrive at a solution to those issues.”
Soper said she had reached out to her Summit property manager but had received no response, or any other offer of assistance, as of midday Wednesday.
Josh Slotnick, a Missoula County Commissioner who rents out four apartments that he and his wife own, is also trying to work with renters on a case-by-case basis. He pointed out that landlords have obligations to make too. “It doesn’t begin and end between the landlord and tenant. There’s almost always a bank involved and a mortgage involved,” he said. “So many landlords like myself depend on rent to make payments on a building.”
Private landlady Katie Kutz wrote in an email that she and her husband would have been willing to temporarily reduce rent if their tenants needed it, “but would have still needed something to help us cover the mortgages. Zero rent wouldn’t have been an option to keep us afloat and our kids fed for long. We have savings, but that goes quickly when you are covering multiple mortgages in the University area housing market.”
But some assistance is taking shape. On Monday, the Federal Housing Finance Administration announced that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together back the mortgages of about half of all homeowners nationwide, announced they would give the owners of multifamily properties mortgage forbearance — suspensions in payment — if they suspend evictions for renters unable to pay rent due to the coronavirus. Other major banks have also offered to work with distressed borrowers.
Soper wants Montana to go further. “I just feel as if rent, mortgages, or anything such as that should be lowered or at least be frozen for 30 days.”
She recently signed an online petition calling on Gov. Steve Bullock to declare an immediate moratorium on collecting residential and commercial rent for the month of April, waive all penalties for nonpayment, and implement interest-free forbearance on mortgages. As of Wednesday afternoon, the petition had gathered more than 3,800 signatures. The governor’s office did not reply Wednesday to an email requesting comment.
Other Missoula residents are eyeing a different strategy, advocating a “rent strike” on social media.
“That’s almost never a great idea,” warned Amy Hall, an attorney with the Montana Legal Services Association, “just because the ultimate result could be ending up in Justice Court over an eviction, and there may not be good defenses for that.”
“I think the better solution is to try to communicate with the landlord and work out this difficult situation by agreement.”
Hall’s organization represents low-income Montanans who can’t afford an attorney. “We haven’t yet started to see the effects of coronavirus ... We think that’ll probably hit next month,” she said. “But we have heard from some tenants who got really nice letters or phone calls from landlords offering to help. So that was encouraging.”
“Of course landlords have the right to collect rent,” she added, “but tenants also have the right to some compassion in this situation, which is unprecedented.”