Small-time landlords are struggling too

In the maelstrom of economic chaos roiled by the COVID-19 virus, small-time landlords are struggling to stay afloat.

"We are the only business out there that has to provide its service but doesn't have to be paid," said Anthony Nudo, a Springfield landlord.

While there may be a touch of hyperbole in that statement, there isn't much. For the past 17 months, Illinois law has prohibited evicting those hurt by the downturn in the economy caused by the pandemic.

Unfortunately, some folks who are doing just fine financially have taken advantage of the situation and stopped paying their rent too. A poll conducted a month ago by the Springfield Area Landlord's Association found that 24 percent of tenants were behind in paying their rent. And only half of those were because of unemployment, lost work hours or other COVID-related circumstances.

"Unfortunately, what we have found is that some people, who could afford to pay, just stopped paying anything when they found out they couldn't be evicted," said Stella Dean, spokesperson for the organization.

While evictions are still allowed under extreme circumstances, such as tenant vandalism and illegal activities, as a practical matter in Sangamon County and many other communities, courts are only hearing the most egregious cases, Dean said.

Before the pandemic, Sangamon County courts would hear eviction motions every Friday, Dean said. But local lawyers have been advised by the court system to curtail the number of evictions coming to the court, she said.

"What that means is that if someone has abandoned cars in their yard, unauthorized people living in the house or if they're just refusing to mow their grass, there really isn't anything I can do," she said. And for all intents and purposes, cases against financially able tenants, who are refusing to pay rent, are not moving forward either, Dean said.

According to the National Association of Realtors, 42 percent of rental properties are owned and managed by individuals. These are mom-and-pop outfits who work hard painting, cleaning and maintaining properties. It may be their full-time job or a side hustle to perhaps help pay for their children's college educations.

One thing is for sure: it's not easy money.

"Even if our tenants are not paying the rent, we still have to pay our property taxes, we have to pay our insurance for the property and, in many cases, landlords are also having to pay mortgages for the properties if they haven't been paid off," said former East Moline mayor John Thodos, who owns several rental properties in the Quad Cities.

"It paid my three girls' way through college. But it is hard. Inevitably, you get calls in the middle of the night or on Christmas Day that a pipe is leaking or there is some other emergency and you have to come over and try to fix it yourself."

The federal government has sent billions of dollars to the states to assist tenants and landlords affected by the pandemic. But the money is moving through the government bureaucracy slower than molasses in January.

"We applied for help in May and we still haven't heard anything," said Virgil Daugherty, who leases out nine homes on Springfield's east side.

"All of the houses are in really good shape and I love all of my tenants – they are good people. Since they are good people, no one is trying to take advantage of me."

But two tenants are months behind in paying their rent, he said. During the pandemic, one lost a job and the other couple had the number of hours they could work reduced.

"In situations like that, people have to make tough decisions on what to go without – it's hard," he said. While such cases are what the state's rental assistance program is designed for, it doesn't mean money is necessarily forthcoming.

"The forms landlords and tenants have to fill out are really long and complicated. In May, I took my tenants over to my CPA's office and he helped us fill them out there. I understand they ask all of these questions because they want to prevent fraud. But they are complicated. They even required us to send in photos of the tenants."

Nudo said since the forms can only be filled out online, it creates an added challenge. Not all of his tenants have internet access or are adept at using a computer.

"Sometimes I've ended up sitting on someone's front porch and helped them fill out the forms. And I have gotten emails from the state that the forms were rejected because they were filled out incorrectly. But they don't tell you what was done wrong and there is no one you can call to find out."

Amy Lee, the communications director for the Illinois Housing Development Authority, which administers the rental assistance program, did not immediately return messages seeking an explanation.

Dean added another complication is that some tenants refuse to cooperate with filling out the application. "They are asked whether the reason they haven't paid their rent is COVID-related. They don't want to answer that because they know they would be committing fraud – and that's a felony."

While in theory landlords could eventually sue these tenants for back rent, it's an unlikely scenario in the real world, Nudo said.

"What I have found during my years as a landlord is that once someone is more than a month behind in their rent, you are never going to see that money."

Scott Reeder is a veteran journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area. Contact him at Scottreeder1965@gmail.com.

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