The apartment industry has proven resilient during the pandemic. Data from National Multihousing Council (NMHC) Rent Tracker Project indicates rent collections returned to normal last summer across 11.6 million professionally managed market-rate communities. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Property managers have shared with us that while collections were better than they expected, there are handfuls of renters at each property that have accumulated significant delinquent balances – some as high as 15 months of rent in arrears –a significant income loss for each property. With the eviction moratorium scheduled to end July 31, now is the time to really dig in and do everything you can to identify sources of funding and help residents who are behind access it.
Understanding What Programs Are Available
Maybe you’ve spent the past year following industry news and reviewing sources to ensure you knew about the ins and outs of all the programs available to you and your residents. Maybe you’ve tried to follow along but aren’t 100% sure you know everything. Either way now is the time to dive in and make sure you are up to speed on all available options.
There are approximately 400 agencies across the United States set up to distribute the Rental Assistance funds . The challenge for the property owners and renters is that there is a lack of consistency across programs. Each ERA grantee has had some flexibility to develop their rental assistance program to suit the needs of their local community while complying with requirements outlined in their ERA financial assistance agreement, the ERA statute, and Treasury’s guidelines. Compounding the problem with inconsistent qualifying criteria is that many of the state and local agencies were not set up to manage a rental assistance program, much less process the volume of applications. The result is as one would expect – getting access to the funds is more complicated and confusing than either side would want.
The National Apartment Association and the National Multihousing Council leadership and members have successfully lobbied for a centralized database to help owners and renters navigate the process to apply for rental assistance for their state. In recent weeks, the U.S. Department of the Treasury has collected websites associated with the grantees’ Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs to help tenants and landlords find rental assistance programs in their local areas. It is definitely worth taking a look at these websites, which were last updated July 1, 2021. This list may include resources not funded with the ERA award issued by Treasury.
Engaging Delinquent Residents – It’s Now or Never!
This is a mind-boggling challenge our industry is facing. If the result of unpaid back rent is eviction and ultimately homelessness, we know that cities and counties with shelters are full, so many families will have nowhere to go. No owner wants to or should have to write off this kind of bad debt when there are funds available.
Likely you’ve been trying to engage residents who owe back rent since rental assistance programs first became available. Unfortunately, probably many of them have ghosted you – refusing to respond to emails, come to the door when you knock, or stop by the office as you have repeatedly requested that they do.
While it is true that property owners can apply for rental assistance on behalf of renters with past due balances, it’s important to realize that you still need to work with the resident because their signature is required on the application.
Given the size of balances that renters have accumulated and the lack of understanding they may have about the financial assistance available, there are growing fears in the industry that renters will be skipping out to avoid what they believe is an inevitable eviction. Once these renters vacate their apartment, the chances of getting them to work with you to apply for rental assistance funds is slim to none. It’s time for one last push to try to help this story end better for yourself, your residents, your owners, and your investors. Because accessing funding requires a resident’s signature, there is no getting around the fact that you need to have a conversation with these residents. It’s time to get creative!
Getting Creative with Your Approach to Establish Contact
Creating the opportunity for face-to-face interaction with delinquent residents is crucial right now. It doesn’t hurt to try the typical approaches again – this time with the clear message that the moratorium is coming to an end and you (renter) cannot afford to put this off any longer. Assuming the typical approaches don’t work, here are some thoughts on what to do next.
If texting residents aren’t part of your standard approach, it is a great option because no one today communicates without their phones in their hands. Try sending text messages to inform them about the aid, explain that they are eligible, and tell them what needs to happen next. If your property management system supports texting, this approach has the added value of documenting attempted outreach for use later if you do end up needing to move forward with eviction proceedings.
In the past, during my career in property management, we’d leave messages with our delinquent residents and invite them to the office to pick up a package (one that we were sending them) to entice them to come into the office. Then, when they came in to pick up their package, we would seize the opportunity to have that important discussion. Our package tactic worked about 90 percent of the time.
Last but not least, you can also put an after-hours plan in place to catch them when they are coming and going from the apartment. Remember, the is a high probability that they anticipate you want to have a confrontational meeting to which they think there is no solution to their problem. Consider trying to catch them in the parking lot on the way to the mailbox. A quick mention to let them know that funds are available to catch them up and maybe even cover the next few rent payments can help them see the value in meeting with you.
SECURING RENTAL ASSISTANCE/PAYMENT FOR BACK RENT
Once you’ve got a resident to engage, there’s a lot that you can say and do to help. The NMHC’s principles for working with residents provide guidance and reflect actions most property management companies are already taking. What we see at this point is that owners and managers who devote staff and energy toward working with their residents directly to complete these applications are having the most success. Leaning in and getting creative with communication is the best way to ensure an eviction “wave” doesn’t turn into a tsunami.