Trying To Pay The Rent, And Trying To Collect It, During The Coronavirus

Maggie Zylinska
Maggie Zylinska, who works cleaning homes, said some of her clients have paid her in recent weeks despite canceling appointments. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Maggie Zylinska
Maggie Zylinska, who works cleaning homes, said some of her clients have paid her in recent weeks despite canceling appointments. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Trying To Pay The Rent, And Trying To Collect It, During The Coronavirus

Dylan Heath is a cook, and like a lot of people in the restaurant industry he works multiple jobs. Or he did, until about two weeks ago.

“I was officially laid off of three different jobs,” Heath said ruefully. “I don't live as paycheck to paycheck as some people that I know … [but] if this continues on for much more than a couple of weeks, then I'm going to be really worried about it.”

Heath is one of tens of thousands of people in Illinois out of work because of the economic shutdown tied to the coronavirus pandemic. Heath said he should be OK making this month’s rent and other bill payments, but he is not so sure about next month. That is the case for many of the workers interviewed by WBEZ.

Workers have had their pay slashed or cut altogether because of businesses closing down, clients canceling appointments or by choice because of fears of the coronavirus. That has workers and landlords alike fretting about rent payments and other bills. Across Chicagoland, people are scrambling to make ends meet, leaning heavily on family or government help, and calculating how long they’ll be able to last without more help.

Mattia Nanfria stopped driving for Lyft a couple weeks ago.

“There are drivers still making $1,500 to $2,000 a week. But think about how many hundreds of people they are coming into contact with,” Nanfria said. “I personally can't do that. My conscience won't allow it for myself and my customers. I don't want to be a point of transmission.”

Recent changes in the law mean that gig economy workers like Nanfria are eligible for unemployment benefits, but WBEZ has reported that Illinois’ unemployment system has been overwhelmed by new claims. Even in ideal circumstances, there is a lag between applying for benefits and actually receiving a check.

“I don't have savings right now. I have my rent for the month, but I just have my rent for the month. You understand?” Nanfria said.

So for the time being she is delivering food via the DoorDash app and trying to save enough so that she can afford to wait for unemployment benefits.

“[I] pray that I don't get sick, and I don't get anybody else sick. But I'm trying to get that safety net because I don't want to have zero dollars and sit here for three weeks not making any money,” Nanfria said. “The people that are still working: it’s because they don't have the safety net ... So that's my goal. I want to put a thousand dollars aside, and then I will sit down and I will apply for unemployment and I will ride it out with everybody else.”

“This is going to suck for everybody”

As workers like Nanfria struggle to make ends meet, landlords across Chicago are trying to figure out what they will do if their tenants can’t pay rent.

Scott McNab of Pennan Properties manages about 250 apartments across the West Side of Chicago and the western suburbs. Part of his job is to collect rent for the owners of the properties he manages. He said in the lead up to April 1, he’d been contacting tenants to see if they’ll be able to pay this month.

At the same time McNab’s been checking in with tenants, he said banks have been calling to check in with him to see if owners will be able to pay their mortgages.

McNab said the owners he works with are understanding of the problems confronting people. “They’ve pretty much all said to us some form of, ‘This is going to suck for everybody. Let’s try to be humane and reasonable about it,’ ” McNab said.

But he said many can’t afford to miss out on rent payments.

“Some of our owners are folks who aren’t rich people — they own a little bit of property," he said. "Sometimes they’re older people, and they’re living on what rent comes in. And so that could be a real big deal in terms of them being able to keep things together.”

Joy Aruguete, CEO of Bickerdike Development, said they’ve been doing similar check-ins with tenants and have been hearing from a lot of them worried about making rent over the next few months.

Bickerdike is one of the largest affordable housing landlords in Chicago, with about 1,100 affordable housing units on the Northwest Side.

Aruguete said they have no plans to kick anyone out, and always “work with people” who are struggling. But she said as a non-profit, Bickerdike operates on thin margins, and needs rental payments to pay their staff.

Aruguete said they’ve been directing tenants to groups that are providing help, including the city of Chicago’s COVID-19 Housing Assistance Grant, which will give out $1,000 grants to people who need help with their rent.

That program only has enough money for 2,000 people.

Julio Rodriguez, director of community development at the Northwest Side Housing Center, said he expects many more Chicagoans to apply for one of those grants, one of the only sources of government help open to undocumented immigrants.

Rodriguez said his group has been calling around 150 community members a day and found some 40% have concerns about being able to pay their rent or mortgage.

“Unfortunately our undocumented population is being hit really hard. A lot of people are not eligible for rental assistance. They’re not going to be getting stimulus money; they’re being laid off; they don’t qualify for unemployment,” he said.

Rodriguez said staff at the Northwest Side Housing Center have already taken calls from undocumented immigrants who’ve said their landlord has told them if they can’t pay the rent, they need to leave.

“We still need to pay the bills”

Maggie Zylinska said she believes there needs to be more public assistance for people pushed out of work, but she also is asking for those in Chicago who can afford it to do what they can on a person-to-person level.

Zylinska has been cleaning Chicagoland houses for almost 25 years, but in the past few weeks, every single one of her cleaning jobs has canceled. She said a handful of her clients paid her even though they didn’t want any work done — and that if people can afford to keep paying their housekeepers or nannies during the crisis, they should.

“We're … here for you when you need to go to work. We make your job possible. And now most of us are without … income for the month and we still need to pay the bills,” Zylinska said.

For now, Zylinska is making the tough choices facing a lot of people in the Chicago area. She is weighing if she should pay her electric bill now or wait until things pick up. She was close to paying off her credit cards, excited to be debt free, but now she is switching to minimum payments and paying her bills with credit.

She estimates she has about two months before her money runs out.

Linda Lutton is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @lindaluttonPatrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.