A man on the pavement in the Bushwick section of the Borough of Brooklyn, New York City, the US, on March 31 2020. Picture: AFP/BRYAN R SMITH
A man on the pavement in the Bushwick section of the Borough of Brooklyn, New York City, the US, on March 31 2020. Picture: AFP/BRYAN R SMITH

New York — The coronavirus pandemic took Brittany Brook’s job on March 16, two days after it took her husband Matthew Whitfield’s, leaving the New York couple scrambling as end-of-the-month bills come due.

On April 1, Brook, an artist, who, until recently, taught music at a pre-school, and Whitfield, a now-former waiter and actor, have to pay the rent and other bills, as do millions of Americans of all social classes who have seen their lives turned upside down by the crisis.

The decisions they make on which bills to pay will provide a clearer picture of the economic damage done by Covid-19 in a country lacking a universal social safety net and where many workers have little savings to fall back on.

“We have, for the first time in our marriage, declined to pay our credit card balances, but only paid the minimum ... and called to ask for interest forgiveness,” Brittany said.

The couple has also applied for deferred and reduced payments for their student loans. “We plan to pay our power bill and anything necessary that we can afford, but we will not be paying rent, as that would deplete our savings and emergency funds within just a few months,” says Brittany, who lives with Matthew in a one-bedroom apartment in New York, which they rent for $1,690 a month.

Asking for charity

According to Amherst, a real estate analytics and investment firm, 26% of US renters could need temporary help to pay their monthly housing bill, which would total about $12bn a month.

The federal government’s unprecedented $2.2-trillion aid package will help ease the economic pain, but the $1,200 cheques promised to every American — and $500 for each child — will not arrive until the second half of April.

In the meantime, a record 3.3-million Americans filed for unemployment during the week ended March 21, as thousands of small and large businesses were forced to close their doors.

Tammy Devitoe was laid off March 12 from her restaurant in Albany, New York, and the $250 to $300 of weekly unemployment benefits she expects to receive will not be nearly enough to pay for her phone, electricity, cable, rent and car loan.

She swallowed her pride and asked for donations through GoFundMe, the online fundraising platform, where she had managed to raise $2,240 by the morning of March 31.

“I’m not used to begging,” the divorced 39-year-old mother said. “I have negative $350 in my account — yes, negative $350. I never had a plan B. I couldn’t afford one. I’m just going to pray and keep begging.”

Evictions halted

Faced with the huge numbers of layoffs and furloughs, mortgage companies are bracing for a wave of missed payments on April 1. Evictions have been temporarily suspended in some areas, and there are growing calls on social media for a rent freeze in April.

Devitoe said her landlord cannot help because they have bills to pay as well. And Cynthia Ryan, who lives in Dallas, said she was told “full rent is due regardless of the situation right now”, as the management said they have lenders too.

Bruce McNeilage, a real estate developer with properties in the southeastern US, said he is willing to make a goodwill gesture for his tenants, such as asking for just 70% of the rent for two or three months. But beyond that, “if they don’t pay I’m going to lose those houses. I have mortgages payments on those houses”.

McNeilage, co-founder of Kinloch Partners, said his tenants are mostly executives who earn salaries of $100,000 to $200,000 a year, yet even some of them are struggling. “We have already had three or four calls here in the last 24 hours; people have already informed us that they will be late on the rent.”

Retailers suffer

From Nike to Cheesecake Factory, businesses large and small are saying they will either pay only half of their rents or default.

On April 1, “We won’t be able to pay any of those bills,” said Joe Toto, owner of Groove Events, a Boston-based event planning company. In 30 years, “this is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”

Business has come to a complete standstill and with no money coming in, he may have to lay off all of his employees, he said. “There is no business, so there is no money.” With so much uncertainty about when life might return to normal, “nobody is yet ready to start to book an event, even, say, July or August or September”.

AFP