4 Steps to Take When You Can't Pay Your Rent

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A record number of Americans are out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic, and apartment dwellers who are not getting regular paychecks are finding they're unable to pay rent when it's due.

According to WBUR, around 470,000 people in Massachusetts have applied for unemployment benefits since mid-March, more claims than were filed in the first 54 weeks of the 2007 recession. The National Multifamily Housing Council, which tracks rental data, says that just 69 percent of households in the U.S. had paid their rent through April 5, a 12% decrease from the previous month.

It’s unclear how many people in Massachusetts were unable to pay their April rent, but if you were one of them or think you will have trouble paying rent in May, here are four options for you:

1. Talk to Your Landlord

While landlords can vary in temperament and circumstances, many are willing to negotiate a payment plan, rent reduction, or even a temporary cancellation, especially in light of the extraordinary changes the pandemic has wrought. What not to do: avoid your landlord. Millions of Americans are in the same boat, so there's no need to feel guilty or ashamed of asking for some relief as you pick up the pieces of your life.

The tenants’ rights organization City Life/Vida Urbana has created templates for renters to use when contacting their landlords. Once you come to an arrangement with your landlord, get any agreements you make in writing. 

2. Understand Your Rights

Because the COVID-19 pandemic is hurting so many Americans economically, local and state governments are taking steps to protect those people who've lost jobs or suffered economic hardships from further trauma, such as being served with eviction notices for non-payment of rent.

The Massachusetts Housing Court is delaying hearing any non-emergency eviction cases until at least May 4. The Department of Housing and Community Development has issued guidance to public and private affordable housing operators to cease non-emergency evictions.

While legislators in the Commonwealth reach an agreement on a final bill for a statewide eviction moratorium, cities such as Boston and Somerville have enacted eviction moratoriums. In New Hampshire, the governor signed an emergency order in March for a temporary prohibition on foreclosures and evictions. Other states and cities around the country have enacted similar delays on evictions.

3. Apply for Relief

In Massachusetts, the state, several cities, and non-profit organizations put several million dollars together to help renters affected by the pandemic. The Department of Housing and Community Development has developed a $5 million program under the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program that will provide up to $4,000 to eligible families. The City of Boston has dedicated $3 million in rent relief for eligible residents. Other cities around the country have established similar programs.

4. Seek Legal Advice If Needed

When discussions with your landlord break down and you feel threatened with eviction, it may be time to speak with an attorney who can advise you of your rights and options. Luckily, there are options for legal help when you have limited or no resources. Greater Boston Legal Services and Massachusetts Legal Services can help you find low- or no-cost representation in a dispute with your landlord. Other states have low- or no-cost legal services; the federal government has a web site dedicated to helping Americans find affordable legal aid at usa.gov/legal-aid.

Download our free Financial First Aid Guide! It'll walk you through the best ways to manage your money during uncertain times. We’ll show you how to take inventory and review all your expenses, assess your debts, prioritize bills and communicate with creditors, and so much more!

Financial First Aid eGuide

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About Author

Matthew M. Robare
Matthew M. Robare

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance writer based in Boston. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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