Need Help Paying Rent? Here’s What to Do

COVID-19 pandemic, Staying home

If you're worried about making rent this month, you're far from alone—more than 17% of households were behind on rent as of March 1, according to a U.S. Census Survey. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has ordered a halt to residential evictions through at least March 31, 2021, and there are other relief options out there too.

State and local governments, and charitable organizations, have stepped up their efforts to help renters in need as well as landlords who rely on rent payments for their living expenses, property taxes, building maintenance and mortgage payments.

If you find yourself in trouble, or suspect you might not be able to pay your rent in the future, knowing your options and rights could be the key to staying in your home.

First, Contact Your Landlord

It's best to reach out to your landlord or property manager right away to discuss your situation and possible solutions. The response can vary widely—some landlords have gone as far as temporarily canceling rent, while others may demand the rent on time and (if they're allowed to) charge fees and penalties, and proceed with an eviction if you're unable to pay.

While you might not encounter either extreme, reaching out earlier can help you come to a mutually beneficial agreement with the person who manages your unit. Since many landlords would prefer to avoid having an empty unit and dealing with finding a new tenant, it's possible they'll offer a solution that keeps a roof over your head. For instance, a lower monthly payment for now and a payment plan for the unpaid amount might be a win-win. New local and state laws could open up new options, such as in New Jersey, where landlords can now put your security deposit toward rent.

When talking out a deal, avoid agreeing to any add-on expenses, such as fees or interest, that could make paying the rest of the rent even more difficult in the future. In some places, it may even be illegal for landlords to try and tack on extra fees or penalties.

See if You Qualify for Financial Assistance

Even if you're given the option to delay some of your payments for a few months, it may not be the ideal action to take. Some organizations may be able to help you meet your current rent obligation without involving a landlord. The National Low Income Housing Coalition can point you in the direction of a program in your area.

Alternatively, getting help with other necessities, such as food, transportation or utilities, could help you free up money for rent. Both 211.org and FindHelp.org are useful starting points. Experian organized information on COVID-19 debt relief programs being offered by financial services companies, such as credit card issuers, lenders and insurance providers.

Learn About Tenants' Rights in Your Area

Your rights as a renter can vary widely depending on where you live. Complicating matters, pandemic responses from municipalities and states can be vastly different from one area to the next. The CDC's eviction protection is currently set to expire at the end of March—though it's possible it will be extended—but you may also be protected by statewide order, such as the one in California that extended the eviction moratorium there through June 30, 2021.

For a more detailed look at eviction protections, check out the following:

Remember that even if you're covered by an eviction ban, that doesn't cancel your rent. You still owe the money, and the landlord may have the right to evict you when the moratorium ends. But again, check local laws as there may be specifics about how quickly you need to repay past-due rent.

Laws aside, some landlords have also threatened to illegally evict tenants in areas where a ban is in place. Or, they may try to force you out by refusing to do repairs, locking you out or cutting off utilities. If this happens, look for legal assistance by contacting a local tenant lawyer or using one of the tools above to find a legal aid clinic.

Understand the Eviction Process

If you're unable to pay rent and aren't covered by an eviction ban, your landlord may begin the eviction process once you're behind on rent. However, that doesn't necessarily mean you have to leave the home right away.

Legally, the landlord may need to give you a written notice and get a court order from a judge. Local and state laws can impact the process, which could take a couple of weeks to a few months—and you may have the right to stay in the home until the process is complete.

If you are evicted, landlords may be able to send your account to collections and sue you to get a judgment, allowing them to garnish your wages or bank account. An eviction can also become part of your rental history, making it difficult to rent again in the future. However, evictions aren't part of your credit history, and even judgments no longer appear in credit reports or impact credit scores.

Start Planning Now

Even if you can afford your rent for the next month—or a few months—start planning for the possibility that you could fall behind in the future. Perhaps you can move to a less expensive place, move in with someone or sublet a room. Reaching out and setting up these options now, rather than at the last minute, could make the transition easier. As a last resort, you could also look into taking out an emergency loan to pay for rent.

Additionally, pay attention to your local news. While federal programs will likely make the headlines and be hard to miss, there may be new local or state assistance available in the coming months.

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