Victor Gomez lives in a $2,000-a-month studio apartment with his partner, their two kids, and his partner’s brother. He used to work full time doing interior remodeling, until the Covid-19 outbreak made clients more reluctant to have workers in their homes.
Gomez now owes his landlord more than $10,000 but, without reliable work, he has no idea how much his tab will grow, or how long it will take him to pay it back.
The landlord has told Gomez they can set up a payment plan once Gomez starts working regularly again, “But even then, I think about the debt a lot… And it just keeps getting worse,” Gomez said.
Thousands of residents are currently in a position similar to Gomez — working fewer hours than before, or out of work entirely, and sinking further into debt every month.
Every month from April to September, between $13.5 million and $33.2 million in residential rents went unpaid in San Francisco, according to an October report by the San Francisco Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office. If those figures remained consistent through December. San Francisco entered 2021 with between $122 million to $294.3 million in residential rent debt alone.
Fred Brousseau, director of policy analysis at the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office, said that figure could be low because unpaid rent has likely increased since September..
“Initially, more people have personal resources available,” Brousseau said, like personal savings or loans from family members. “It becomes a much more daunting number to look at as time goes on, because you know those resources are going to be depleted.”
Brousseau said that tenants would need lots of time to repay their debt once they can begin paying rent again. Some degree of rent forgiveness is unavoidable, he said.
“There will probably be a number of arrangements made so it’s partially recovered or paid for over time” Brousseau said. “But I don’t see how it’s possible that it could all be paid off.”
In Gomez’s case, even if he got back to working full time today and started paying his landlord an additional $250 every month to pay down his debt (an untenable increase for many residents), it would take him more than three years to eliminate the debt.
Scott Weaver, a volunteer for the San Francisco Tenants Union and a supervising attorney at the Eviction Defense Collaborative, said many residents in similar positions to Gomez might consider filing for bankruptcy to eliminate their debt.
“A lot of folks don’t want to look at the bankruptcy option,” Weaver said. “They see the stigma, and not the benefits, of bankruptcy.”
Weaver emphasized that bankruptcy is not a solution for everyone. But residents facing massive debts with no clear plan for repayment might be better off just wiping their debt and waiting seven years for the bankruptcy to disappear from their credit history.
He also sees it as a way for tenants to remain in place.
Assembly Bill 3088, which established California’s eviction moratorium, states that landlords can begin suing tenants for unpaid rent on March 1, which might result in a judgement — a court order to repay.
“The landlord could get a judgement against you, and if you declare bankruptcy the judgement will be wiped out,” Weaver said.
Weaver also said residents being sued by their landlords might use the threat of bankruptcy as a means of gaining leverage when negotiating repayment plans. And with the current decline in demand for rentals in San Francisco, landlords might be more inclined to accommodate tenants.
“Rents in the city are going down significantly, so tenants are going to be in a better bargaining position, even if they haven’t been paying,” Weaver said.
Indeed, a tenant may not even need the threat of bankruptcy.
Charley Goss, who is in charge of government and community affairs at the San Francisco Apartment Association, said that landlords are trying to keep tenants.
“What we’ve seen is that people are trying to keep their renters. It’s really tough to fill vacancies in this market… we’re trying to be as lenient as possible,” Goss said.
And, this too could offer a way out of the crisis.
Mission Local reported, in a story on residential rents in San Francisco, that tenants were getting discounts from $150 to $300 a month. If a tenant such as Gomez is able to negotiate a new lease at $250 a month less, and repays his debt at $250 a month, he will essentially be paying the same rent.
The San Francisco Apartment Association, which represents landlords, surveyed 172 of its members, representing 4,741 residential units. The survey showed that 11.8 percent of tenants missed some or all of their rent payment for December.
In the same survey, 56.9 percent of the landlords said that they had received a temporary or permanent rent reduction request and 54.4 percent had granted such requests. By comparison, only 4.4 percent of landlords received some type of payment deferment from their lenders.
If landlords are unable to recover debts from tenants, and banks are unwilling to work with the landlords they’ve loaned to, Weaver and Goss both speculated that landlords who oversee fewer apartments might be put out of business.
“There will be some landlords who won’t be able to stay in business,” Weaver said, “and larger interests will control more and more of the housing stock.”
“We think that an owner who is local, who is invested, who has a relationship with the tenants is a better owner for the tenants than a real estate investment trust like Blackstone,” Goss said.
Brousseau, Goss and Weaver all pointed to another solution to the growing problem: rent relief, preferably from state and federal funds.
In San Francisco, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development’s Give2SF Housing Stabilization program has allocated nearly $6.5 million for rental assistance, disbursed through five community organizations, with an average payment of $4,500 per household, according to Brousseau’s report. However, the demand was huge; some 9,000 applications came in.
“1,443 prioritized applications are in the process of receiving up to a combined $5.8 million in assistance,” reads an update report of the program published by the San Francisco Controller’s office on Jan. 8.
But these numbers have not changed since the last update published on Nov. 4, meaning no new applicants have been selected for assistance in two months. Some members of the community also objected to the requirements for receiving assistance.
Even if the funds were disbursed expediently, the $6.5 million available is only a fraction of the $42 million in requests the program received, and an even smaller fraction of the hundreds of millions owed.
On the state level, Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, introduced Assembly Bill 16 in December, 2020, which would establish a rental assistance program in California called the Tenant, Small Landlord, and Affordable Housing Provider Stabilization Program. But the bill holds few specifics, so far.
The federal relief bill passed in December, 2020, included $25 billion in rental assistance, and documents from the Department of the Treasury show California could get up to $2.6 billion, but it is unclear how much will come to San Francisco. And if the money is disbursed through the Housing Stabilization Program, it is unclear how long it will take for the money to get into the hands of residents.
“A shitstorm is the only word I can think of to describe it,” Weaver said.
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