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Renters at risk: Ways to cope in the financial crisis

Renters at risk: Ways to cope in the financial crisis
Posted at 7:51 PM, Aug 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-18 04:34:48-04

We’re all feeling effects of the current recession, whether it’s the rising cost of groceries or the pervasive economic uncertainty. But some are feeling a bigger impact than others, and data indicates renters are disproportionately affected.

Half (50%) of American renters had used or planned to use their government stimulus check for necessities at the time of an early May NerdWallet survey, conducted online by The Harris Poll. That’s compared with 32% of homeowners. Three in 10 renters (30%) used or planned to use it to pay rent, whereas 15% of homeowners used or planned to use it on their mortgage.

Renters are vulnerable when expenses grow or income is slashed, due to lower average incomes compared with homeowners. Further, they don’t have access to the same built-in relief valves as mortgage-holders — such as forbearance or loan modification — when they can’t pay their monthly housing costs.

Federal, state and local eviction bans protected some renters for several months, but many of those orders have since expired, and possible extensions are uncertain. Without those protections, many tenants could be on a fast track to trouble, and even with those safety nets in place, the rent bill will eventually come due.

Housing costs take a bigger bite of renter income

Renters have less insulation from economic crises. Not only do they earn less, on average, but they also spend more of their income on housing. While a loss or reduction of income could instantly push these households to the breaking point, even minor setbacks can send them closer to the edge.

Renters spend 31% of their income on housing costs on average, compared with homeowners, who spend 20%, according to U.S. census data. The rising cost of groceries, unexpected medical bills, supplies for a child’s at-home education — these could pile up to make monthly bills unmanageable, even if household income isn’t affected by reduced work hours or unemployment.

This isn’t to say homeowners aren’t feeling the effects of record unemployment and economic upheaval. While many homeowners have been able to take advantage of record low interest rates to refinance their mortgages, more than 8 million homeowners didn’t make their June house payments, according to the mid-July Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census. But that’s just 6% of homeowners, compared with 18% of renters who couldn’t pay their June rent.

There is also evidence that populations hardest hit by unemployment are among the most likely to rent. For example, people in their 20s are the only age decade that’s more likely to rent than own, according to census data, and 34% of unemployment claims are being filed by those aged 22-34, more than any other age group, according to data from the Department of Labor. Also, 49% of people working in the hotel and food industry live in rentals — a far higher rate than the 36% of Americans overall — and this industry represents the greatest share of all unemployment claims.

Web searches for rent relief terms peaked, and peaked again

Evidence of the sustained impact on renters can be seen in Google search data, where it’s a safe assumption that people searching for terms such as “rent relief” and “rent assistance” are either experiencing or anticipating difficulties paying the rent.

In mid-March, searches for terms related to housing relief jumped to levels not seen before. And while “mortgage relief” was far more common than “rent relief” or “rent assistance” that month, those terms have sustained greater search interest throughout the summer.

Unlike mortgage relief terms, which have waned since April, rent relief terms sustained higher-than-normal volume after the initial jump, and peaked again in mid-July. They’re currently trending lower than both peaks, but higher still than seen in the years before the pandemic.

What renters can do

Tenants having difficulty paying the rent have a few options at their disposal, but they may have to make tough decisions in the coming weeks and months. A legal eviction can make it difficult to find safe, affordable housing in the future, so preventing that should be paramount.

  1. Negotiate with your landlord. You may be able to work out an installment plan to pay your rent throughout the month or get caught up if you’re behind. Also, legal evictions are costly and time-consuming, so your landlord may be willing to negotiate a more graceful exit if you’re bound by a lease but unable to hold up your end of the contract.
  2. Apply for emergency assistance. The National Low Income Housing Coalition provides a database of local and state resources for emergency rent assistance. Local charities and churches may also be able to help. Visiting the website 211.org or calling 211 can help locate local resources like these.
  3. Borrow smartly. If you’re forced to borrow to keep up with your rent, weigh the costs of any loan — if you’re unable to pay it back, you could find yourself in an even worse predicament. Borrowing from friends and family is generally the least expensive option, followed by paying your rent with your credit card and, as a last resort, getting a cash advance on your credit card.
  4. Know if you’re protected from eviction. Many eviction bans at the local, state and federal levels have expired, but some remain, and lawmakers could take action to extend previous measures or enact new ones. Nolo.com maintains a database of the mixed bag of regulations, and you can check state and local government websites for details in your area.
  5. Move. Moving can be expensive and is generally a last resort. But when it gets to a point that holding on to your rental is causing more problems than it’s solving, it may be time to talk to family members and friends about finding an alternative. Living in your parent’s (or adult child’s) guest bedroom may not be ideal, but drastic times call for drastic measures, and many of us are facing circumstances we couldn’t have imagined just six months ago.

Analysis methodology available in the original article, published at NerdWallet.

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Elizabeth Renter is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: elizabeth@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @elizabethrenter.