Since Nicole Kane lost her job as a Hoss's Steak and Seahouse waitress Monday because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, all she can think about is April 1 - when her mortgage and car payments are due.
Kane's husband works at Panera Bread, which is open for takeout in their small town of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, but business has been slow, making the couple fearful for his job as well. The family has three children and two car loans. Desperate for cash, Kane started delivering dinner for DoorDash but makes much less than she used to.
"Suspending mortgage and car payments for three months would be the biggest impact for my life," said Kane. "DoorDash is helping, but it's not going to be anywhere near what my family would need."
In interviews with more than a dozen laid-off workers and small business owners, nearly all said their biggest economic concern was paying the rent or mortgage in April. Many people across the country have monthly payments that exceed $1,000. The median monthly rent in the nation is just over $1,600, according to Zillow, an online real estate database company. The median mortgage payment is $1,400.
Congress is rushing to finalize a massive aid package to help laid-off workers and small business owners. The latest version includes a one-time $1,200 check for most adults and $500 per child, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the earliest that money could arrive is April 6. Most rent payments are due April 1. Landlords typically charge a fine if payments don't arrive by the 5th.
Millions of Americans do not know how they will get the money in time to make rent. The nation has 40 million renters, who tend to be younger. Black and Hispanic families are twice as likely to rent than white households, according to the Pew Research Center.
"I will take a credit hit before I would let anyone go hungry in my house," said Rob Holland of Cincinnati, who has nine people living in his house including children and grandchildren. He is a freelance worker, directing big corporate events, all of which have been canceled through the summer.
Holland's mortgage payment is $1,300. He also spends several thousand dollars a month on food for the family and health care since he has Crohn's disease.
"If I can't stay healthy, I can't do anything else for my family," he said. "I went from making great money to making $0."
A few laid-off workers said their landlords agreed to accept a delayed payment - or even waive April rent altogether. As for mortgages, Bank of America said it would work with struggling customers on a "case-by-case" basis. The federal government also announced a halt to foreclosures and evictions, but that applies only to loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Administration.
Several unemployed workers wondered why the United States could not do what Italy did and temporarily delay all mortgage payments. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. - politicians normally with opposite views - have proposed a nationwide delay on all mortgage and rent payments. The idea appears unlikely to make it into the "Stimulus 3" package expected to pass this week.
"We should impose a 60-day moratorium on mortgages, rent, fees and utilities for both individuals making less than $75,000 a year and small businesses with less than 250 employees," Scott wrote in a Fox Business opinion article.
Small business owners face even larger bills for their rent payments. Jeremy Campbell manages 15 Sola Salon Studios in San Diego. His business is similar to WeWork. He rents spaces from commercial landlords and rents them out to more than 500 hairdressers who run their own businesses. Campbell had to close all his properties Thursday night when California instituted a "shelter in place" order.
"Our beauty professionals no longer have a place to cut hair. Their income is gone, and our revenue drops to $0," he said. "We have a large number of rent checks due April 1."
Campbell is trying to get a Small Business Administration loan and work with landlords to delay rent payment, but time is ticking and "the landlords have all the leverage right now."
The big fear for many small business owners such as Campbell who rent commercial space is government aid will not arrive in time, and landlords might use the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to renegotiate leases. In many commercial property contracts, a default triggers penalties and the ability for landlords to change the terms. Campbell wishes Congress would pass a law freezing commercial lease terms through May 15.
Without a federal plan, renters and landlords face a patchwork of approaches. The Los Angeles City Council this week approved an emergency plan to halt evictions temporarily and create a citywide rental assistance fund. In Oregon, Home Forward, which provides affordable housing, is offering tenants affected by the coronavirus outbreak a rent break until May 31. Renters will be able to repay their skipped payments over 12 months, according to Home Forward. In Mountain View, California, the city council has approved a $500,000 renter assistance program for people affected by the coronavirus.
Many Americans are having to figure things out on their own. Logan Mohtashami told his renter, a single mom with a child, that she did not have to pay April rent at all. For now, she still has her job, but Mohtashami, a successful investor and real estate analyst, said this was something small he could do during a national emergency.
"I just told my tenant that the next rent is not needed. Anyone else with me?" Mohtashami posted on Facebook.
Some landlords on Facebook said they also are waiving April payments because it's the right thing to do. But others pointed out the rental income they receive from their renters goes to pay their own rent or mortgage, a chain that breaks down if one person at the bottom stops paying.
Mohtashami recognizes not everyone can manage to waive a full payment, but he urged landlords to be as flexible as they can.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, almost like a war. If everyone kind of pitched in, that can have an impact," Mohtashami said.