Can't pay your rent? Here are your options

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Tenants and housing rights activists in Los Angeles protest for a halt to rent payments and mortgage debt on Oct. 1, 2020.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

If you’re scared that you won’t be able to come up with your rent, you’re not alone. As many as 1 in 5 renters say they’ve fallen behind during the pandemic, according to the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities. For Black renters, the share who are in trouble is closer to a third.

And as many as 34 million people in the U.S. may be at risk of eviction, a new analysis by global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross found.

“The United States is facing the most severe housing crisis in history,” said Emily Benfer, an eviction expert and visiting professor of law at Wake Forest University.

Despite the difficult times, struggling renters have options.

If you’re worried about coming up with rent, your first step should be to understand your rights, experts say.

Most tenants should be allowed to stay in their homes until the end of the year, thanks to an order announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September that made evictions for nonpayment illegal. 

You’ll need to attest on a declaration form that you meet a few requirements, such as expecting to earn less than $99,000 in 2020.

“If a tenant cannot pay the rent, they should provide the declaration to their property owner as soon as possible,” Benfer said. 

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Try to give the form to your landlord in person and make sure to keep a copy for yourself. 

Don’t expect things to just go smoothly from there. Unfortunately, some landlords appear to be misinterpreting or ignoring the CDC’s ban and continuing to file evictions anyway. 

Jim Baker, executive director of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, has identified more than 12,000 new eviction cases filed by corporate landlords since the moratorium was announced on Sept. 1. 

“These evictions by private equity firms and other corporate landlords threaten the health of their residents and the broader public,” Baker said. 

Another problem is that states are interpreting the CDC ban inconsistently. For example, the CDC doesn’t say anything about renters needing to provide documentation, aside from the declaration, to prove that they qualify for the protection. Yet, in Maryland, evidence may be required.

All of these issues underscore how important it is to get a lawyer if you’re facing eviction. One study in New Orleans found that more than 65% of tenants with no legal representation were evicted, compared with fewer than 15% of those who did have a lawyer. 

You can find low-cost or free legal help with an eviction in your state at Lawhelp.org.

In addition to the CDC ban, some states have issued their own eviction protections. Get informed about those, too.

Other options 

Meanwhile, at Justshelter.org, you can search online for community resources for people at risk of eviction.

Many states and cities have allocated funds to help people stay in their homes during the public health crisis.

In fact, more than 400 rental assistance programs have popped up during the pandemic, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. On the coalition’s website, you can find a list of these relief funds by state.

You may also be able to dial 211 or 311 in your state to get a list of rent relief programs that are still open, Benfer said.

If you’re accepted for the assistance, make sure to let your landlord know right away.

You also may want to discuss the option of a payment plan with your landlord, experts say.

Meanwhile, some tenants are using their credit cards to cover their rent.

Few landlords or property managers accept plastic, so you’d have to find a third-party processor, such as PlastiqPaypal or RadPad

“Their pitch is that you could pay them with a credit card and then they would mail a check to your landlord or send an electronic funds deposit,” said Ted Rossman, an analyst at CreditCards.com. 

This option should only be used in dire situations.

The companies charge a fee (up to 2.85%, Rossman said), and then if you can’t pay the credit card balance off immediately, you’ll be dinged with interest. The average rate on a card is currently around 16%. 

Other ways to come up with rent can include borrowing from family and friends or from your retirement plan, Rossman said. 

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