Janis Hollins is a landlord who knows what it’s like to be on hard times.
Hollins and her husband, Andrew, were literally homeless for four days after losing their jobs and their house during the real estate crash of the Great Recession.
They have since recovered and bought some property. They’ve been landlords for about 10 years, with 21 units. All are within a mile or so of Mount Pisgah Baptist Church on Bloomington’s west side. Hollins rents to those others might turn away, like people struggling with addiction or a criminal record.
“I know what it’s like to be where these tenants are,” Hollins said.
And right now, a lot of renters in Bloomington-Normal are hurting financially. The coronavirus shut down many restaurants and stores, eliminating jobs or at least hours for low-wage workers who are most likely to rent. Thousands have filed for jobless benefits in McLean County. The state’s eviction moratorium remains in effect, but some fear a deep backlog of displacement when it ends.
Hollins has two tenants who haven’t paid their rent for May. A few others have made partial payments. But Hollins has bills to pay, too, like taxes and a mortgage. She praised those tenants who are communicating with their landlords about their financial situation, but she also wonders whether everyone who received unemployment or stimulus assistance actually used it to pay their rent.
“We’re doing all we can to help,” Hollins said. “But I don’t know if some of these tenants are reciprocating that. We have some concerns that they’re just simply choosing not to pay their money to us.”
Help may be on the horizon. The United Way of McLean County on Friday is expected to announce an “initiative around housing assistance for residents economically affected by COVID-19.” Details have not been released, but partners include the City of Bloomington, Town of Normal, City of Bloomington Township, Normal Township, PATH, and Mid Central Community Action.
There are around 23,000 rental units in McLean County, or about a third of the local housing stock. The average rent is $830. More than a third of renters here pay 35% or more of their household income in rent, according to 2018 data from the Census Bureau.
Class Act Realty, which manages apartments in Bloomington-Normal, has seen more late rent payments than normal recently, said leasing broker Ken Witte. People are simply not working as many hours—or at all—because of the shutdown, Witte said.
It is critical for tenants to stay in contact with their landlord about any challenges they are having paying rent, Witte said.
“If their rent is $600 and they can pay $300 or $400, that’s better than paying $0,” he said. “And eventually, when things get better, they won’t be thousands of dollars behind.”
While many landlords have been understanding, a few have not.
WGLT previously reported on Juan, a 28-year-old Bloomington man who said he fell behind on rent after losing his hotel job because of the coronavirus. He said his landlord cut off his power after sending his son over to try to forcefully collect the money.
Juan, who asked that his last name not be used, lost his job as things slowed down at the Bloomington hotel where he worked. He’s since got a new job at a Bloomington restaurant. But he was still behind on rent at the unit he shares with his girlfriend on East Jackson Street.
On a recent Sunday morning, Juan said his landlord’s son visited to collect. Juan said the son started banging on the door.
“The door frame is shattered. He kicked it in,” Juan said.
Juan and his girlfriend called Bloomington Police, who confirmed the son was arrested on a preliminary misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. The McLean County’s State’s Attorney’s office is still evaluating the case for formal charges.
Juan said the landlord then shut off his power. After a referral from the City of Bloomington, Juan contacted Prairie State Legal Services in Bloomington for help. Managing attorney Adrian Barr said the power shutoff was illegal, and he was prepared to file suit against the landlord. Barr said the landlord backed off, restored the power, and fixed the door.
“(The landlord) acknowledged they must follow the law and has backed off and is no longer harassing him,” Barr said.
Rather than putting pressure on tenants, Hollins said she tries to offer more productive solutions, like sharing job opportunities.
“If the money’s not there, me showing up at the door isn’t going to produce money,” Hollins said.
Kandi Currie is a landlord with five rental units, all in west Bloomington. Two of them have been able to keep paying rent. Three haven’t.
Currie said she prides herself on having a good relationship with her tenants.
“You don’t want them to leave, because they’re taking really good care of your property. Sometimes I have to pay my mortgages up front out of my own pocket until they’re able to make up their rents. Which is going to become a hardship at some point for me,” Currie said.
The big thing, she said, is that late-paying tenants continue to take care of her property.
“That’s more than half the battle,” she said. “Because you don’t want a tenant that is not paying you in there tearing up your property."
Ending the moratorium
Currie said her biggest concern is the governor’s eviction moratorium—specifically, how some tenants have misunderstood what it means.
Currie and Hollins both told WGLT there are tenants who misinterpreted the moratorium to mean they don’t have to pay their rent. They still do.
“It should’ve been communicated more clearly,” Hollins said.
The ban on evictions remains in effect Friday, even as the state entered Phase 3 of the governor’s reopening ban. There's also a federal moratorium on evictions through late July, though that only applies to rental properties with federally-backed mortgages.
When the moratorium is lifted, Prairie State's Adrian Barr said he’s concerned there is a “pretty significant backlog of evictions that will be filed.”
“Those are the normal evictions that would’ve been filed in April and May, and then also we’re seeing potentially a spike in people who can’t pay their rent due to a loss of income due to COVID-19. So, I’m concerned there will be a larger-than-usual number of evictions filed,” said Barr.
But Barr said he’s hopeful the rental assistance program being announced Friday will help.
Young America has around 900 non-student rental units in Bloomington-Normal. General manager Andy Netzer said he initially feared revenue would crater 20% to 30% as things shut down. But it hasn’t been quite that bad.
“We just didn’t know, when things were shutting down in a way I haven’t seen in my lifetime, what kind of panic that puts into people,” Netzer said. “And it seems like most people understood that they still have a responsibility to pay their rent. And they’re working out to us when they can’t, and we’re working together to find a payment situation that can work for them.”
Netzer said the eviction moratorium is a non-issue for his company.
“We’re not wishing we could be evicting people that we’re not right now. Generally, we are working well with people. There are people probably headed in that direction aside from the COVID situation that will probably still be in that same position when the eviction moratorium lifts, and still head down that path. But the eviction moratorium is not a big story for our business right now,” Netzer said.
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