“There’s No Free Lunch Out There”

A D.C. property owner says rent strikes during the pandemic won’t just hurt landlords.

A bus on an almost empty street in downtown Washington as the sun sets.
The streets of downtown Washington are almost deserted by traffic and pedestrians during the 6pm usual rush hour. Eric Baradat/Getty Images

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The Labor Department reported that unemployment claims soared to a record-breaking 6.6 million in the past week, bringing the total claims amid the pandemic to almost 17 million. While the government’s stimulus package promises coronavirus relief checks and extra unemployment protections, April rent has already come due, and it’s beginning to look like May’s will too before many people see any form of that relief—which still may not be enough. Across the country, tenants are turning to rent strikes against property managers, with some who can afford to pay refusing to do so in solidarity with those who have lost their jobs.

Slate spoke this week with Clifton Rowls, a D.C. landlord who has been renting for 40 years and has eight tenants across four properties, some of which he shares with a business partner. We discussed the unique position of landlords who must maintain their properties while their tenants’ financial futures—and their own—are still up in the air. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: Is renting your primary source of income?

Clifton Rowls: No. I taught school for six years. Then I worked for D.C. Public Schools’ budget office for 30 years. Now I’m retired from that job. I always in my spare time bought houses, repaired them, and the ones I could keep, I kept. The ones I was forced to sell because they cost too much, I sold.

What have your communications with your tenants been like since the pandemic started? Have any of them had to ask for accommodations with the rent?

I haven’t had one do that so far. To prepare for this, I have always had a line of credit with a small bank in Maryland, so when things happen, I use my line of credit. I do not think that I will have to use any government assistance.

My problem that I have now is when people call for service, it’s very difficult to get, for example, a plumber, an exterminator, a carpenter, painter. Those people are following the mayor’s advice, which is to stay home. In emergencies, I either go myself or I can find some close friends, the people I’ve been working with for years, who will come out, although I’m reluctant to put them and their family in that position. So far, I guess I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had any major things happen that I could not get help for.

Have you had to go do repairs yourself since the crisis began?

Yes. I try not to go in if I can. If they can send me a picture of something, for example, that’s leaking, then I can try to get a plumber in there to take care of it. But I’m one of the vulnerable ones to this virus. If I catch it, I think I’d have some real problems. If I’m forced to go in, then I just have to go in. I wear a mask, try to clean up as much as I can when I come out.

Lawmakers are proposing that rent and mortgages be not just postponed but canceled for three months, while some landlords in different cities have just decided to cancel rent. Have you considered doing the same?

I’m certainly not going to go out and cancel the rent. And the government’s not going to help you canceling rent. If you have a problem, the renter tells you, “I’ve lost my job,” then I’m sure they’re going to ask for a letter from the employer. You’ve got to be able to prove that it happened. But to just write to people and tell them, “Hey, don’t pay your rent.” No. I’m not going to do that. Because the city has not made any effort whatsoever to cancel the taxes on these places.

Now I understand that you can call the mortgage company and ask them to relieve you of mortgage payments. And take my word for it, some of them will do it. But you’re going to get your butt kicked for it later. And the government is not going to be able to help you. If you’re in a position where you’ve got to use something like that, then I say, by all means, use it. But you better do your level best to get out of this mess on your own.

You mean landlords, they’re the ones who need to do their level best?

To get out of this mess on their own. This is a mess. The people who can’t work from home and that have been fired from their jobs, there’s nothing they can do except to say, “I’ve been fired from my job. Here’s the proof. Here’s my letter from my employer,” and then you can take that and go to the government and say, “I need help here because I have a mortgage to pay.” But these banks are not going to forget this. It’s very difficult.

If one of your tenants came to you and said that they got laid off or fired from their job, how long would you be able to let them not pay?

I’ve never been in that situation before. The only thing you could do is to try to get around paying the mortgage if you don’t have the money. Now some mortgage lenders have said you can go three months and defer those payments. Then some banks are saying that you will have a balloon at the end. In other words, if you didn’t pay $700 for three months, then the $2,100, that’s just an example, would be due and payable at the end of the mortgage.

One thing gaining traction is the idea of a rent strike.

People can do that. And you don’t have to have been fired from your job and I’m positive that there are a lot of people who are going to take advantage of this and then they’ll do it. But they need to remember, they will pay for it sooner or later because once you have just simply refused to pay your rent because of this, it will affect your credit report. There’s no free lunch out here, none. I’ve been around for a very long time. Take my word for it. In the fine print, you do not want your credit destroyed.

Not only that, it’s against the law to do it. Why would you risk going to jail? There is no law that I have seen saying that you can just not pay your rent. That’s like saying, “Go to the grocery store and don’t pay your grocery bill.” And anybody who tries that, they will be affected later on if not right away. I wouldn’t tell anybody to do it.

But there are going to be people who will do it. I have a lot of friends who rent places and I have one who has already called me and said that one of the restaurants that he rents space to stopped paying their rent the month before last. And he says he’s seen people going in there and coming out with food. This was prior to their stopping people from eating in restaurants. They stopped paying their rent back then. People going to take advantage of it. It will not get to the people who really need it.

If your tenants decided not to pay rent or just couldn’t pay rent because they got laid off, would that affect your income or your ability to pay for your own housing or food?

Well, like I said, it would depend totally on how long this lasts. If the tenants stop paying for whatever reason, I could last a few months and then of course, I would start to lose my property, or I would have to talk to the banks about not paying my mortgages. I could stand it for three or four months. And then I would have to let it go.

It’s just my opinion—there’s no way you can live in decent housing with everything that is up to standards and good shape [without paying rent]. When a tenant calls me, I’m there the next day or I’ll get somebody there the next day as a normal course of business. Now things have slowed down because people—and you can’t blame them—they’re staying home. So, in a situation like that, you just do the best you can. In my opinion, it is a mistake for people to take advantage of this and just go on a rent strike if you need housing.

For people who can’t pay rent—

OK, see, you’re confusing the two. You say “rent strike.” Then you compare the same thing with people who lose their jobs genuinely and cannot pay their rent. There’s a big difference in those two. A big difference. When you can’t because you’ve lost your job, then you take that letter, you send it to the landlord, and say: “Hey, look. I’ve lost my job. There’s nothing I can do.” Then the landlord’s got to ride this thing out the best way he can until this pandemic is over. And it’ll be over. We’ll get back to work. I can’t believe that this is going to go on for years. Because if it does, there’s going to be a lot of people with housing that’s not fit to live in.

You can do that foolishness, but if the landlord doesn’t get the money to perform the maintenance on what he’s got, then it’s going to go down. There’s nothing that goes down faster than real estate without maintenance. You’ve got to do maintenance. And in order to do maintenance, you are going to have to pay the workers. That’s why I do what I can to get out there. If a tenant calls me and says they need something, if I can’t find anybody to do it, I’ll put my mask on and go do it myself. Or I’ll find a friend to go in there and help. That’s dangerous for both of us.

But you have a situation where a tenant needs you and you can’t get there … that’s pretty bad. You know, a tenant calls you, “The washer and dryer doesn’t work.” You’ve got to get in there and fix it. Pandemic or no pandemic. Because they have no place to get their washing done. The lock breaks on the door. You got to fix it. These things are emergencies that must be fixed. How long do you think they’re going to get fixed if you’re on a rent strike? They’re not going to be fixed. And I’m not saying that because I’m a landlord. I’m saying that because there is no sense in breaking the law and breaking your agreement when you have a job. If you don’t have one, you can prove it, you’re in good shape. But you better not bring that stuff out there and you have a job and you’re continuously getting paid. And people are going to do it. That’s the world we live in.

So, for tenants who have lost their jobs and can prove it, once this is all over, how would you go about collecting past rent?

I don’t think there’s any mechanism to. Say you work at an automobile mechanic’s and they’ve had to close your shop and you’re not getting any money from them. You’re getting $1,200 a month from the government, which is not going to be enough to even feed your family, yourself for that matter. You don’t have a job. How are you going to catch rent up for three or four months? You can’t do it. There’s no way these people are ever going to be able to go back after they lost their job and pay that rent. They’re not going to do it. They’re not going to be able to. Chances are good that you won’t get the money because people don’t have it. This thing hit people with zero savings. There’s no way anybody can go back and make this stuff up. Everybody is going to take a loss.

It sounds good, $1,200. “We’re going to put the check directly in your hand.” Where is $1,200 going to take you? Unless you’re living in a state that you buy groceries at half the price they cost you in D.C. This city has not stopped collecting taxes on your groceries. And I sure did have to pay my property taxes the 31st of March. They sent those notices out along with notices telling you what it’s going to cost you if you don’t pay it by the 31st of March.

So you’re saying that landlords whose tenants lost their jobs should just accept those months of rent as losses? They shouldn’t expect to get the money?

How can they? I’m old enough to have been in this position, where every time I got a paycheck in one hand, it went right out the other. There was no savings account. The only thing that this pandemic has done is to shine a light on how low-income and even some medium-income people are living in this country. Nobody wanted to see it before. But right now, it’s in your face. How are the hospitals ever going to collect their money from these people who have no insurance because they couldn’t afford it in the first place, but they had to be treated? How are you going to pay that money back? You can’t.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to this week’s episode of What Next: TBD.