What do you do when there’s no money for rent? It’s a question that millions of Americans have faced, and that many more are facing now that the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has shut down cities and put a hiatus on many public-facing jobs. And that’s where rental assistance comes in.
From 2017 to 2018, the number of cost-burdened renters—meaning those who pay more than 30% of their income toward rent—increased from 49.5% to 49.7%, with about half qualifying as severely burdened. While it might seem like a small jump, the increase represented the first rise in the cost-burdened rate since 2011, and accounts for some 300,000 households. Altogether, 2.8 million more Americans faced a rent burden in 2018 versus 2011, and that number skyrocketed with the reverberating economic effects of COVID-19.
The ability to find fast and reliable rental assistance is important, as is knowing what steps to take when you can’t pay your rent. Below, we’ll cover what to do when you need rental assistance, as well as where to search for rental loans and grants.
I Can’t Pay My Rent—Now What?
There are a few different rules that dictate how much rent someone can afford, from the 30% rules (no more than 30% of your income should go to rent each month) to the 43% rule (monthly rent plus monthly debt payments like car and student loans should not account for more than 43% of income). All of those facts and figures fly out the window though when you’re facing job loss or another major loss of income.
The first thing to do when you find you cannot pay your rent is to talk to your landlord. Give notice in writing of your inability to pay your next month’s rent and explain what the situation is, then ask if a deferment or payment plan is available. Be as specific as you can in communicating what is going on, including outlining your loss of income in real numbers. This gives your landlord a full and clear picture of your circumstances and shows that you’re putting real thought into how you rent fits in to the bigger picture.
Don’t wait until rent is due to have this conversation. By getting on top of the situation as early as possible, you convey to your landlord that you are taking the circumstances seriously and are looking for active solutions. It also relieves the pressure on both of you of rent being due right now, which leaves more time to figure out a flexible plan.
So why do this in writing? A lease is a binding legal contract, and when you sign it, you agree to its terms regardless of extenuating circumstances. By putting your request in writing (such as in an email)—and requesting that your landlord reply in writing as well—you ensure that there’s a paper trail of any changes that are made to the terms of the original contract. If you end up having the conversation in person instead, request a written document stating the new terms you’ve decided on, and have both you and your landlord sign it.
Of course, not all landlords are going to budge. Likewise, putting a payment plan into place is still going to require that you come up with rent money when it’s due—a difficult task if you’ve lost all or most of your income. In both of these scenarios, rental assistance programs may be able to help.
3 Types of Rental Assistance Programs
When you are in need of rental assistance, there are three primary places to look: government and housing authorities, non-profit agencies, and faith-based organizations. Here’s what you should know about each.
Government and Housing Authorities
Many states, and even individual cities, offer rental assistance programs for those in need. Sometimes these programs are subsidized all or in part by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), while other times they are completely funded by the state or city that is providing them. For example, the State of New Jersey Rental Assistance Program (SRAP), which provides housing subsidies for low-income residents. Other state programs include Florida’s EFAHP program and Connecticut’s RAP program.
For tenants who are struggling to pay their rent, these government-funded rental assistance programs can be a lifeline—at least for the short term. Assistance is often provided in vouchers that can be applied toward rent payments, with the amount and duration of the vouchers depending on need.
A good place to start with government-funded rental assistance is state social service agencies. These agencies can work with tenants to source funding for rent payments, and have a deep knowledge of the programs and resources that are available in specific localities.
Another place to look for help with rental assistance is charitable organizations and non-profit agencies. Start with your local Community Action Agency (find yours here) or the Legal Aid Society. You can also call the United Way’s 24-hour helpline at 2-1-1, which connects those in need with assistance programs of all varieties.
There are many non-profit agencies throughout the country that are dedicated to helping individuals with their household bills, including rent payments, but it can be tough to navigate what your options are. By starting with an agency like the Community Action Agency, the Legal Aid Society, or United Way, you can hone in on the options that are available in your locality and for your specific needs. You’ll still need to apply for programs when you find them, but these agencies can be crucial in navigating the process.
Of the charitable organizations dedicated to things like providing rental assistance, many of them are faith-based organizations. This includes Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul, and the Salvation Army. Other faith-based organizations that provide rental assistance are Love Inc., the International Association of Jewish Free Loans, and the Lutheran Social Ministry.
Some of these organizations provide funding themselves, while others help individuals locate the right resources. Local religious centers like churches and synagogues are often able to help in some way as well. Social services tend to be a big part of religious charity work, and while funding does not come all or in part from the federal government like it does for other agencies, faith-based organizations can be integral in finding short term rental assistance.
There is absolutely no shame in asking for help with your rent. Seek out assistance with as many programs as you can, noting that competition for available funding can be high—especially now. While you’re at it, you may want to pursue other means of rental assistance as well, such as crowdfunding or personal loans.
What’s important to keep in mind is that most rental assistance programs are not designed to offer long-term support. That’s why it’s so crucial to have a conversation with your landlord. If you find that your landlord is unwilling or unable to budge, or if you’re confident that you won’t be able to accommodate even a modified payment plan, you may need to find alternate housing. If you can, consider moving in with a relative or friend until you can get back on your feet, and read up on how to break a lease to ensure you minimize penalties as much as possible.