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'My family is in a really tight spot': Cash-strapped renters worry about lack of options

Diana Tinta, a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, has felt the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic disrupt nearly every facet of her life.

After being forced to finish the semester online, she and other fourth-year students won’t be able to walk the Lawn in May.

However, Tinta’s most pressing concern is an inability to pay rent and a dissatisfaction with the options her leasing company has offered.

“When the pandemic started, I lost my part-time jobs just like a lot of other people did,” she said. “My mom is a domestic worker and lost one of her jobs and had her hours reduced at her other job. With my father now also furloughed, I knew very quickly I would not be able to make rent payments.”

As a resident at a largely student-occupied building, The Standard, Tinta is surrounded by others who also have been affected by the pandemic. Soon after losing her jobs, Tinta said she reached out to her leasing company, Landmark Properties, to see if she could terminate her lease, which ends in July.

She was told she could not without incurring fees.

After rereading her lease, Tinta said it became apparent to her just how difficult and expensive it would be to end the lease early or find someone to sublet her apartment. She would have to either pay out the rest of the contract, which would cost several thousand dollars, or pay $250 for each remaining month that someone sublet the property, neither of which are tenable options.

Tinta said her similarly situated roommate has received near-daily calls from the leasing company about her overdue rent.

As a first-generation Latinx student who paid for school largely through scholarships, Tinta said she is in a different situation than many other student tenants, whose families may still be able to pay or help with their rent.

“My family is in a really tight spot where our money needs to be directed to food and other necessities, not my rent,” she said. “Leasing companies and landlords really don’t seem to care much for the livelihood of their tenants.”

According to a leasing agent at the Standard, residents who have been financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic can apply for a “COVID-19 Hardship program.” The program requires a tenant to fill out an application and provide proof they have filed for unemployment. Then the tenant’s May rent payment would be split — with 50% due by May 15 and the rest split between June and July.

Late fees would only be waived if full payments are made by the end of the month. Lease termination is only allowed if a tenant pays a “no-cause termination” fee, according to the Standard’s Housing Agreement.

Tinta, who felt she had few options left, turned to the Legal Aid Justice Center, which directed her toward financial resources that helped her pay her April rent. However, going forward, she is still unsure how she’ll pay rent.

Evictions are currently frozen in Virginia as a result of a state-wide order limiting court hearings to emergency matters until May 17.

However, according to Michaela Lieberman, a health justice fellow at the Legal Aid Justice Center, individuals may still face suits in the future.

“In [Tinta’s] case, her landlord may bring suit for damages later and that approximate $1,800 would be a financial drop in the bucket for them but for her is a major deal at this time,” Lieberman said. “Everyone is really struggling through a really difficult time, and we’re hoping landlords and leasing companies respond with empathy and kindness.”

According to Lieberman, Legal Aid is trying to get out in front of potential disputes and arrange for fair and equitable payment plans, though the organization believes rent waivers — where tenants do not have to pay missed rent now or in the future — are the ideal solution.

Some leasing companies in the Charlottesville area have already taken steps to provide some assistance to tenants, though no major area agencies appear to have waived rent.

According to Joy Waring, a leasing agent for Woodard Properties, which owns a mixture of student, professional and income-restricted housing, the company is working with residents on a case-by-case basis.

“Sometimes that means helping them navigate available payment assistance resources, sometimes that means trying to drive marketing efforts on their behalf, and sometimes that means working with them on a payment plan,” Waring said.

After the state order suspending non-emergency court actions is lifted, Waring said Woodard Properties will continue normal collection practices for accounts that were overdue before the pandemic or if a tenant has made no attempt to contact the company and make payment arrangements.

“We also have high expenses such as mortgages, insurance, property taxes, utilities, ongoing maintenance, repairs, property upkeep, as well as employee payroll and health care,” Waring said. “We are constantly evaluating how to manage our income and expenses in order to best serve our customers, employees, contractors, vendors and community members at large. It is a daily balancing act.”

Whitney Godfrey, of Godfrey Property Management, said she waived tenants’ late fees for April and plans to do the same for May.

“Prior to the shutdown, I emailed all of my owners and told them to prepare for late payments and check with lenders about payment plans, as I expected it would be necessary to work with some tenants who have been laid off or having to stay home for half of March and all of April,” she said.

Mike Johnson, a managing agent for PMI Property Management Inc., which owns properties in Charlottesville and across the nation, said the company has similarly waived late fees and asked tenants to pay what they can.

Johnson said he’s been surprised to see that around 95% of rent due was collected in April and that vacant properties continue to be rented. However, as the pandemic situation evolves, he said he would not be surprised to see things change.

Other leasing agencies and landlords in Charlottesville and Albemarle County did not respond to inquiries about current policies.

Though some leasing agencies and landlords have taken steps to assist their tenants and customers, Tinta said she would like to see them go further.

“Individuals have already lost so much: their regular lives, their peace of mind, and in some cases, their family members, and rent is only adding more financial stress,” she said. “Landlords and leasing agencies really need to step up and aid and help people out; this isn’t a question of whether we want to pay rent — it’s about whether we can.”


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