Rent Is Due. What If You Can’t Pay?

Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Affordable housing is scarce in the UK. Almost half of us spend more than 30% of our income on rent alone. For millennials, it’s about a third of the income earned by age 30. And it’s not like buying a home is any more accessible. Many of us have simply accepted having a huge chunk of our salary go to rent every month, often in the expensive cities where our jobs are.
But the economic impacts of COVID-19 have made the burden of rent feel even heavier. Though unemployment benefits have been expanded to address job losses as a result of the pandemic, they will expire by the end of July, meaning people still unemployed at that point will go back to receiving the state unemployment replacement rate, which is less than 50% of your normal wages. There are also many people who have been denied for unemployment or are still waiting for their claim to be approved. With new studies showing that up to 42% of job loss due to the pandemic will may be permanent, not temporary, worrying about rent you could barely afford in the first place could also be a long-term concern.
All this to say that if you’re no longer able to pay your normal rent, you’re far from alone. If you’re unsure of how to go about broaching this uncomfortable topic with your landlord, you’re not alone in that either. We spoke to NerdWallet home and mortgage expert Holden Lewis on some practical tips on how to negotiate on your rent.
Figure out a number
The conversation with your landlord will likely involve some back and forth, but you should offer the opening volley and give them an idea of what works for you. Do you specifically need an abatement on your rent, or could a deferral work too? Your landlord will probably be much more open to a deferral, but keep in mind that if you defer for 3 months, for example, you could be on the hook to pay back all those delayed payments at once. Don’t just suggest what you think your landlord will agree to; be honest about what you can really afford right now.
“When asking for a rent reduction, your bottom line is based on how much you can afford — your income minus expenses,” says Lewis. “Ask yourself, 'How much can I afford to pay in rent while still making my other bill payments?,' rather than, 'Can I get a 50 percent reduction?' Have your income and expenses written down, preferably on paper that you can hand to your landlord.” It’s also a good idea to give some idea of how long you think you’ll need these terms.
Your ask might also depend on how much time is left on your lease. On the one hand, it’s probably more difficult to fill an empty apartment right now — but unfortunately not as much in major cities with housing shortages. “If your lease is up soon, the landlord might take a tough negotiating position in the hopes of renting the space to someone who is able to pay the full rent,” says Lewis. “But how long will it take for the landlord to find that tenant? That's the question in the back of the landlord's mind.” If you still have a lot of time left on your lease, you’ll likely have a bit more bargaining power.
Make a list of actions you’ve already taken
Be prepared to give a list of reasons why a change in rent is the best option for you right now. Lay out that you have already exhausted other options to mitigate any suggestions of, “Well, have you tried this?”
“You'll be in a better negotiating position if you can say that you've already cut back on other expenses,” says Lewis. You can say that you’ve cut back on non-essentials, taken a forbearance on student loans, even dipped into your retirement funds to make ends meet. Stress that you’re also collecting or trying to collect assistance, like unemployment insurance. Or, as may be the case, say that you should be receiving unemployment but haven’t actually started receiving payments yet. “By reducing expenses and getting unemployment benefits, you're showing that you're doing what you can to meet the landlord halfway,” says Lewis.
If your landlord asks for proof, it could help your case to go along with the request. “Provide all the documentation that you can, such as pay stubs or a termination letter. Be honest about the status of your unemployment claim. Even if the landlord appears unsympathetic, try to make this negotiation a cooperative effort, and not a confrontation,” says Lewis. It might sting to see your landlord take a rigid stance on your financial struggles right now, but cooperation is likely the best chance of getting some rent relief.
You also don’t have to wait until you’ve exhausted every other option to ask for a reduction or pause in rent — you can still bring up the topic to see what might work for you and your landlord. It’s up to you to decide the best strategies for making a persuasive case with your landlord.
Remind them of your history
Have you been a reliable tenant? Does your landlord know that you take really good care of your place? If you’ve had a fairly good relationship with your landlord so far, use that to your advantage. It might be hard to find a tenant better than you right now, and what you’re asking for isn’t permanent anyway. Knowing that you’ve been a great, reasonable tenant for a long time will also make it obvious that you’re not just asking for a rent discount because you feel like it, but because there’s genuine need.
Practice the conversation and pick up the phone
Once you’ve figured out your approach and the persuasive points to bring up, you might want to text or email your request. It’s fine to use those channels to bring up that you’d like to discuss a rent abatement or deferral, but you should suggest having the actual conversation over the phone. It’ll be helpful for your case if your landlord can actually hear you and put a real voice to the request. A long email is much easier to dismiss.
Take some time to practice your strategy and key points. “You want to speak confidently, even though you're nervous, so it might help to role-play the conversation before talking to the landlord,” says Lewis. Discussing this topic might be anxiety-inducing and seem confrontational even if you’re coming from a place of negotiation, so it helps to have a firm idea of what you’ll say and sound calm over the phone.
Get it in writing
Once the conversation is finished and you’ve agreed on a plan that works for both of you, it’s important that you have a record of it. Ensure that it has all the specifics, like exactly how long these new terms will be in effect.
“If you negotiate a temporary reduction or pause in rent, get it in writing,” says Lewis. If you’ve agreed to a pause on payments rather than a reduction, the document should have details on repayment. “The written agreement should specify the length of the catch-up period when you're paying the past-due amount.”
What if your landlord says no?
Unfortunately, it’s possible that your landlord will simply deny your request. At that point, you might just go ahead and begin paying the amount you’re able to right now. In states like New York, an eviction moratorium will remain in place until August 20th. But that hasn’t always stopped landlords from trying to evict anyway — there isn’t a clear, rigorous mechanism to enforce the moratorium. And once the moratorium expires, you’d be legally responsible for missed rent payments and your landlord could begin eviction proceedings right away.
“It'll be easier to work out a deal with the landlord if you communicate. Give the landlord a head's-up before missing a payment or making a partial payment,” says Lewis. “If you can't persuade the landlord, you can try to find someone else to talk sense to the landlord. That might be a HUD-approved housing counselling agency or a lawyer. At this point, you're switching from cooperation to confrontation, with a diminishing chance of success.” There are also local tenants unions and housing rights groups that could offer you some advice or resources.
Lewis shares his own experience of getting what you need from a landlord: “I was 24 when I rented my first apartment, in Baltimore. I moved out of that place within a couple of days because the roaches were so bad. I woke up with them crawling on my bed! The landlord yelled and cursed at me, and complained about my useless generation, when I called to say I was breaking my lease. I was terrified. But I had talked to a lawyer, and he told me a magic word to say — vermin. Asking for a rent reduction is different from that situation, I know — but I survived confronting a landlord and you can, too.”