Tampa Bay renters are paying their rent. But for how much longer?

Data at both the local and national level shows renters are making payments at rates higher than expected during a period of deep unemployment.
MICHAEL EGGER/STAFF [ Times (2013) ]
Published May 8, 2020|Updated May 8, 2020

With the economy still firmly in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, new data released Friday showed another measurement of the collective strife: Fewer people in Tampa Bay made rent payments during the first week of May compared to the same month last year, which was also the case in April.

However, the data also showed a rare sign of optimism: More Tampa Bay residents paid May rent, at 87.2 percent, compared to April, at 81.5 percent, according to RealPage, a property management software company.

The same trend was true for Florida as a whole and for the nation, according to RealPage and the National Multifamily Housing Council, respectively, which both began closely monitoring rent payment data when the pandemic hit.

“Despite the fact that 20 million people lost their jobs in April, we’re seeing evidence that apartment renters ... are stepping up and meeting those obligations,” said Adam Couch, a market analyst for RealPage, who pointed to stimulus checks and other short-term forms of assistance as a likely cushion for May’s numbers.

But many issues loom. Couch noted that renters in more low-income properties had lower rates of rent payment than in luxury apartments, indicating the deeper financial pain for workers without savings.

“The next question is, ‘What if we’re in the same boat a month from now?’” he added.

Julie Lohman, 47, of St. Petersburg, is one renter in Tampa Bay who’s already run out of financial fall-backs. An ophthalmologic tech in an eye doctor’s office, she was laid off March 22 and has been working just one day per week.

Lohman already used the last of her savings and her federal stimulus check to pay her April rent and bills. But when May 1 rolled around, she wasn’t able to scrape together the full rent amount for her one-bedroom apartment.

She’s also been unable to get any money from Florida’s fraught unemployment system, despite hundreds of calls.

Related: Florida’s unemployment benefits: We answer your questions

Fortunately, the landlord of her complex has been “willing to work with me,” Lohman said. “But I know that can’t last forever ... I’ve never ever been in this position in my life.”

The ripple effects of unpaid rent affect others’ livelihoods as well. An analysis completed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that roughly half of all rental units in the United States are owned by individuals, or “mom-and-pop” landlords, rather than large corporations.

Josh Stenger, who rents out a house in Clearwater and one in St. Petersburg, said he hasn’t received rent on time from either of his tenants since the pandemic began. One lost her job as a nanny and has communicated with him and provided partial payment. The other tenant, he fears, is taking advantage of the pandemic’s protections against eviction and is failing to pay on time even though he didn’t lose employment.

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Stenger has seen news of rent strikes in New York City and worries people are forgetting that many landlords depend on the income from rent. He still owes money on one of the houses.

“I just want communication,” Stenger said. “They’re making landlords seem like the villains, but landlords have expenses, too.”

There are signs even larger companies are feeling the pinch. Dean & DeWitt, a prominent St. Petersburg property management company for apartments and historic homes, sent an email to tenants earlier this month urging that they contact their members in Congress to ask that they include direct support for renters and landlords in the next coronavirus relief bill.

At the beginning of each month, the offices of Bay Area Legal Services see a surge in calls from people worried about eviction, said Tom DiFiore, team leader of the housing unit. The firm offers legal services for civil cases at no cost to clients.

DiFiore said one of the most common questions stems from confusion around Gov. Ron DeSantis’ moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. Tenants who have received eviction notices wonder how it’s legal for their landlords to begin eviction proceedings in court.

But local courts have interpreted the moratorium as only prohibiting sheriffs from enforcing the final stage of an eviction, not precluding landlords from filing the paperwork to get the process started.

Unless it’s extended, the moratorium expires after May 17. Rising rents in the Tampa Bay area combined with unemployment spurred by the pandemic are creating a “perfect storm” for a wave of evictions after that date, DiFiore said.

“People that don’t have the income to pay their rent," he said, “coupled with their inability to get unemployment ... that’s a tsunami continuing to rise.”

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