From bartering to begging for relief, struggling Americans confront April rent

Joseph Ax and Daniel Trotta, Reuters

Posted at Apr 01 2020 03:53 AM

People queue to enter The Bowery Mission, a shelter that provides meals and assistance to the homeless and disadvantaged, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Manhattan, New York City, on March 31, 2020. Andrew Kelly, Reuters

NEW YORK - New York hair stylist Vanessa Karim has not worked since March 21, when the state closed all salons to slow the spread of the coronavirus. She only has enough cash on hand to cover half of her $1,400 April rent.

"It all feels like a bad dream," said Karim, 36, who planned to ask her landlord if he would be willing to accept a partial payment. "Every day I'm like, 'Is this really happening?' I'm trying not to stress out."

As the pandemic wreaks havoc on the US economy and transforms Americans' daily lives, the start of April brings a moment of reckoning for millions: rent checks are due.

Many Americans have already lost their jobs – last week's national unemployment claims exceeded 3 million, shattering previous records – and huge swaths of the country have essentially shut down, with more than half of US states now under some version of a stay-at-home order to curb the disease's spread.

One third of the nation's 328 million residents live in rental homes, according to US Census data. In New York City, the epicenter of the US outbreak, the proportion of those who rent their homes is much higher.

Some states have instituted a moratorium on residential evictions. Housing advocates, however, have called for more dramatic action, including putting rent payments on hold altogether until the economy can restart.

In some cases, landlords – who often rely on rental payments for their own financial survival – have been willing to accommodate tenants damaged by the economic fallout.

Megan Cornelius and her husband, Adam, moved to a bigger apartment in New York's Brooklyn borough less than two months ago, just as she was landing a new job in talent development for a digital sports network.

She was laid off after barely a month, while Adam is between jobs in the hard-hit restaurant industry.

"There's no point in even trying to find a job now," he said.

With no income, the couple prevailed upon their landlord to defer rent payments until one of them can find employment. To their relief, she granted the request immediately.

"We went from 'How are we going to survive?' to 'This will be fine, we're going to make it through,'" Adam Cornelius said.

Others have found creative ways of making the rent. Ryan Henry Ward, a Seattle artist whose murals appear all over the city, saw his normally busy spring season screech to a halt as the pandemic shut down schools, restaurants and shops.

He wrote his landlord a letter explaining his situation. His landlord replied with a proposition: create some murals for his properties, and Ward would receive monthly payments that he could use to pay his rent.

"When he let me know, I cried. I just bawled. I didn't know I was holding it in," said Ward, 44, who has also set up a mural-for-food arrangement with a restaurant.

Some Americans have been stymied in trying to apply for unemployment benefits, with agencies flooded by a tsunami of claims that has swamped online systems.


It's not just home renters who are worried. Jenny and Steve Nugent, who run Flanagan's Harp and Fiddle, an Irish pub in Bethesda, Maryland, were planning to inform their landlord on Tuesday they would be unable to pay their $14,000 April rent.

Since their doors shut a day before St. Patrick's Day, they have lost an estimated $70,000 in revenue compared to last year, Jenny Nugent said. The bar is scraping by on takeout orders, which is enough to pay a dishwasher and a cook and cover some basic expenses – but the rent is too much.

"It's either pay the rent or make payroll," she said.

Still, she has approached the outbreak with equanimity, saying if the bar goes belly up, she will head down to the local grocery store and apply for a job.

Karim, the hair stylist, said she is comforted by the knowledge that so many others face the same challenges she does.

"I know it's not just me," she said. "That kind of keeps me going."