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Virus puts squeeze on landlords

Real estate investor Shad Elia stands outside one of his properties as tenant Krystal Dingler walks her dog on Thursday in Haverhill, Mass. Seven months after the pandemic began, landlords face an even more uncertain future. With tenants falling behind on their payments, Elia wonders how much longer his lenders will cut him slack. The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — When it comes to sympathetic figures, landlords aren’t exactly at the top of the list. But they, too, have fallen on hard times, demonstrating how the coronavirus outbreak spares almost no one.

Take Shad Elia, who owns 24 single-family apartment units in the Boston area. He says government stimulus benefits allowed his hard-hit tenants to continue to pay the rent. But now that the aid has expired, with Congress unlikely to pass a new package before Election Day, they are falling behind.

Heading into a New England winter, Elia is worried about such expenses as heat and snowplowing in addition to the regular year-round costs, like fixing appliances and leaky faucets.

Elia wonders how much longer his lenders will cut him slack.

“We still have a mortgage. We still have expenses on these properties,” he said. “But there comes a point where we will exhaust whatever reserves we have. At some point, we will fall behind on our payments. They can’t expect landlords to provide subsidized housing.”

The stakes are particularly high for small landlords, whether they own commercial properties, such as storefronts, or residential properties such as apartments. Many are borrowing money from relatives or dipping into their personal savings to meet their mortgage payments.

The big residential and commercial landlords have more options. For instance, the nation’s biggest mall owner, Simon Property Group, is in talks to buy J.C. Penney, a move that would prevent the department store chain from going under and causing Simon to lose one of its biggest tenants. At the same time, Simon is suing the Gap for $107 million in back rent.

Michael Hamilton, a Los Angeles-based real estate partner at the law firm O’Melveny & Myers, said he expects to see more retail and other commercial landlords going to court to collect back rent as they get squeezed between lenders and tenants.

Residential landlords are also fighting back against a Trump administration eviction moratorium that protects certain tenants through the end of 2020. At least 26 lawsuits have been filed by property owners around the country in places such as Tennessee, Georgia and Ohio, many of them claiming the moratorium unfairly strains landlords’ finances and violates their rights.

Apartment dwellers and other residential tenants in the U.S. owe roughly $25 billion in back rent, and that will reach nearly $70 billion by year’s end, according to an estimate in August by Moody’s Analytics.

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