Coronavirus’ economic pressures worry Grand Forks renters, landlords

Many are afraid of financially coming up short.

Benny Irvine, 23, stands in the entrance to his shared apartment near the University of North Dakota campus. Joe Bowen/Grand Forks Herald

Benny Irvine isn’t worried he’ll lose his job, but he is worried that he might lose some hours. Or that he might get sick and, following the suggestion pushed far and wide by health workers and politicians as a novel coronavirus spreads across the United States, have to stay home for a while.

“Thank goodness, I have a job,” said Irvine, 23, who declined to name the firm he works for, but said it pays enough for him to afford the $1,000-a-month apartment he shares with his girlfriend near the UND campus.

Irvine said his landlord is reasonable and would understand if he struggled to make rent during the economic downtown toward which the virus is pushing the county. He thinks it would be reasonable for landlords in general to allow cash-strapped tenants to break their leases without consequence or to put together pay-as-you-go plans until the economy recovers.

“The cost of utilities, health care and groceries is enough,” he said. “We don't need to worry about being homeless.”

Irvine is one of a growing number of people in North Dakota and elsewhere hoping for -- or pushing for, or enacting -- rental market changes while the U.S. economy struggles during the pandemic.


In Grand Forks, Mayor Mike Brown urged landlords not to evict tenants who can’t pay their rent.

“These are difficult economic times, and they’ll get better,” Brown said at a virtual press conference earlier this month. “I would encourage people to be human, to be humane.”

In Fargo, a coalition of housing advocates, the ACLU of North Dakota and Rep. Mary Schneider, D-Fargo, called on Gov. Doug Burgum to order, for 90 days after the end of the coronavirus emergency, a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures on residential properties. They also asked him to temporarily halt fees for late rent and mortgage payments and to bar landlords from reporting nonpayments to credit agencies.

That overlaps somewhat with a March 26 North Dakota Supreme Court order that puts a general halt on eviction proceedings in the state, with presumptive exceptions for tenants who are violent and other extenuating circumstances. But ACLU staff worry that it would leave proceedings up for interpretation from one judge to another because the order allows a court to proceed “upon a showing of good cause.”

“What we are asking for is some finality and certainty from Gov. Burgum,” Dane DeKrey, the organization’s advocacy director, said Monday, March 30.

President Donald Trump on Friday signed into law a bill that bars landlords from tacking on late payment fees and from evicting renters for failing to pay -- but only if the landlord has a federally backed mortgage. Perhaps most notably, the bill is set to pay most Americans $1,200.

Coming up with rent money could be a challenge for a growing number of residents. Grand Forks Job Service staff said 571 people made a first-time unemployment claim March 16-21. The week before, 30 people did. It’s not a perfect measure, but Dustin Hillebrand, who runs the service’s workforce center, estimated that those figures are a close approximation of the number of people who had recently lost their job.

Landlords who spoke to the Herald said they’ve got bills to pay, too, and some seemed taken aback by Brown’s request.


"People never ask grocery stores to give away free or reduced groceries to people that lost their job," said Dan Sampson, who leases out about 250 rental units around town. "As a landlord and human beings, of course, we feel sorry for renters that are in a bad situation and we always try to work with them. It’s just a balance with some people that try to take advantage of situations and not pay rent and then run out and buy a new TV or something with the money they receive from unemployment or the $1,200 federal checks they will receive."

Mark Rustad, who owns or has a hand in about 400 rental units, mostly apartments in the city, estimated on Friday that about 10 tenants have personally asked him for a break of some type on their rent. Rustad said he was already planning to be lenient, but felt that Brown overstepped his bounds by making that request and worried that it would prompt renters to ask to delay payments they could otherwise afford.

“Payment plans are not an unusual thing,” Rustad said. “If you’ve got a good renter with a good history of paying and something like this comes up, that is absolutely not unusual. The problem is when the mayor basically tells the entire community that rent should be the last thing to concern yourself with because you wouldn’t be humane if you evicted somebody or tried to collect.”

Rustad said he doesn’t plan to evict people enduring hardships or enforce fees for late payments.

“I get it,” he said. “People are in a tough spot.”

The worry, generally, is that a lack of rent money could start a sort-of financial chain reaction.

“If we don’t collect rent, we don’t get paid, I can’t pay my staff, and I can’t keep my business open,” said Derek Nolte, the owner of TruHome Property Solutions, which manages about 600 apartments and other rentals in Grand Forks. “And in turn, as equally or more importantly, my clients can’t get income to pay their mortgages, and then if they can’t pay their mortgages, depending on their situation, they may have a risk of losing the property altogether.”

TruHome staff sent a letter to tenants this week that said the company “cannot allow rent to go unpaid” but that it will do as much as it can to help tenants.


“Under most situations, I don’t see us pursuing evictions during a time like this,” Nolte said. “But I can’t say that with 100% certainty in every single situation.”

He wasn’t sure how long that would last, though.

“I really wouldn’t even be able to begin to guess how long this could continue before we’d have to try to find alternative options for the situation,” Nolte said.

That economic pressure might be particularly prevalent among smaller-scale landlords. Jeanie Vasichek, for instance, bought a duplex in 1996, shortly after a divorce and shortly before the infamous flood the next year. She rents out one apartment in it and lives in the other.

“If a tenant isn’t able to pay rent, I feel they should also be required to provide some documentation of proof from their employer or workplace,” Vasichek wrote to the Herald. “Not all landlords are big corporations and have a large financial reserve to cover unpredictable situations such as this .... Being this has been my home for so long, I can’t afford to relax or release tenant from paying rent for any period of time unless dire necessity.”

As a public service, the Herald has opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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