How to Negotiate a Rent Reduction During the Pandemic

A 'Now Renting' sign on an apartment building on Market Street in San Francisco on Dec. 6, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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Rent was already too damn high, and then the pandemic hit.

Between layoffs, furloughs and a shrinking economy, scores of tenants in California have come to dread the first day of every month.

About 8% of adults in California are considered "housing insecure" right now, according to an ongoing U.S. Census survey. That's more than 1.1 million people who are "not current" on rent or mortgage payments. And roughly 126,000 of them live in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.

While state and federal rules are temporarily protecting some tenants from being evicted, many still face the question of how to pay rent now or in the coming months.

With them in mind, KQED talked to seasoned tenants' rights attorney Joseph Tobener, longtime Los Angeles landlord Mike Werner and Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco Executive Director Fred Sherburn-Zimmer for their advice on how best to negotiate down rent.

"I think it would be foolish for any tenant not to ask for their rent to be lowered right now," Sherburn-Zimmer said.

Research Rent in Your Neighborhood

When it comes to negotiating your rent, it's important to do your homework about comparative rents in your area.

While there has been a lot of noise in the news about tech workers fleeing the Bay Area and causing rents to fall — sometimes by as much as 35% — that data only tells half the story, Tobener said.

"Here’s the biggest misconception people have right now: that housing is scarce and rent is dropping," he said. "That’s not universally true."

Instead, he said, vacancies are often concentrated in "those sky-rise apartments" in places like downtown San Francisco. Plummeting rents in a city's pricey urban cores can make it look like rent is dropping more than it is in, say, San Francisco's more moderately priced Sunset District.

So Tobener recommends carefully surveying the local rental market when preparing to negotiate with your landlord.

You can look up local rents by ZIP codes on Zillow, among other online services.

Werner, the Los Angeles landlord, said to make sure when looking up comparison prices to consider various factors. One of his tenants, for instance, lived in a luxury one-bedroom unit overlooking a beach, but "they compared it to an apartment blocks away that looked down onto an alley. Not all one-bedrooms, even on the same block, are created equal," he said.

Most tenants make the mistake of only mentioning their personal hardships, Tobener said. And that is rarely persuasive, at least at first.

"The tenant needs to be ready to talk from a landlord's perspective," Tobener said, which starts by knowing the cold, hard numbers.

Negotiate in Writing

One of the most common mistakes Sherburn-Zimmer sees is for a tenant to accept a landlord's rent-break offer verbally, only to have the landlord subsequently waffle on the specifics of the deal.

"Get everything in writing," Sherburn-Zimmer said.

If you do make a deal verbally, it can help to send a follow-up email saying something like, " 'We talked on the phone yesterday. Thanks for agreeing to A, B and C!' If you don't do that afterward, it doesn't matter what you agree to," Sherburn-Zimmer said.

There are other frequent mistakes, too, like signing agreements that are too complicated to understand without a lawyer, feeling pressure to agree to something right away or simply packing up and leaving without exhausting all rental protection options.

It's also good to start the negotiation process early, as it can take months.

Additionally, Werner, the landlord, recommends keeping the negotiations cordial if possible, remembering that many landlords are facing mounting losses themselves.

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Werner, for instance, said as more people are staying at home during the day, his trash and water bills are rising. He's also down roughly $100,000 in rent because of tenants who haven't been able to pay since the pandemic started.

"If a tenant really has a need and can say 'I have a need, because ...' that's really helpful versus 'You have to do this for me,' " Werner said. "It opens it up to a partnership and trying to approach things, instead of this brinkmanship."

And though the potential legal challenges of negotiating a rent decrease may seem daunting, you may want to do the initial negotiating yourself before calling in a lawyer, said Tobener (who, yes, is a lawyer). In fact, bringing in the legal big guns may sour talks with your landlord, he said.

"It’s about the relationship. Getting an attorney right away erodes that relationship," Tobener said.

But once you have your deal all set, that's when an attorney or tenants' rights group may come in handy. "Any of the tenants’ groups can look over that final letter you make in your negotiations and make sure all the legal things have T’s crossed and I’s dotted," Sherburn-Zimmer said.

You can find a long list of tenants' rights organizations here at Tenants Together. Another group, Bay Area Legal Aid, has offices across the region.

Don't Go It Alone — Organize

If you live in a multi-unit building, organizing with your neighbors can be an effective path to successfully negotiating a rent decrease.

"Even the wealthiest people in your building who moved in and pay $4,000 a month in rent may have lost work, too. It’s worth putting a note under everyone’s door," Sherburn-Zimmer said.

"I think collective proposals work very well, everyone in the building asking for a 10% or a 20% reduction," Sherburn-Zimmer said. That can mean organizing a building-wide rent payment postponement, or even a rent strike.

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"It’s like going into your boss' office and asking for a raise versus forming a union and asking for a raise collectively," Sherburn-Zimmer said. "You have so much more leverage and somewhat more protection."

Shimmy Li shares a San Francisco apartment with two friends in the South of Market neighborhood. After the pandemic hit, both of his roommates were struggling to pay rent — one was unemployed, the other got hit with a significant pay cut and ended up moving out before the lease was up.

After talking with other tenants in the building, Li learned his household wasn’t alone. Three neighbors in another unit had all been laid off because of the pandemic. "It was just a pretty dire situation," he said.

In June, Li and his fellow tenants decided to collectively approach their landlord and ask for a rent reduction. They sent an email and explained their financial situation, and the landlord agreed to a 15% reduction for one year. That brought the monthly rent of Li's three-bedroom apartment down to $3,400 a month.

“We all felt really energized. All of us learned a lot about being able to ask collectively,” Li said.

But Werner cautioned that tenants should only consider attempting this a last resort, as it may make a landlord feel under attack and lawyer-up.

"It would escalate the crap out of it," Werner said.

But, as Li experienced firsthand, sometimes it works.

Promise to Pay, Promise to Leave

You may not need to go as far as a rent strike, however, if you negotiate the right numbers.

One tactic Sherburn-Zimmer has seen tenants successfully employ is paying lump sums in exchange for forgiving some rent debt. If you can save some money and pay thousands of dollars of owed rent in one fell swoop, Sherburn-Zimmer said, you may be able to convince the landlord to forgive part of your debt.

But how do you save that money? "Sometimes those tenants do some rent withholding, due to COVID, until they settle some of the back debt," Sherburn-Zimmer suggested.

Werner, who owns four properties in West Hollywood, agreed. But he cautioned that proportionality matters.

If a tenant asks to pay $1,000 on $10,000 in back rent and have the rest forgiven, "the answer is 'no,' " Werner said. But if a tenant offers to pay $7,500 on $10,000 owed rent and have the rest forgiven, then, "we'll move forward. How could you not do that?"

And it's at that point that describing some of your pandemic-related financial hardships can help — that is, if you describe a legitimate and concrete inability to pay.

"The reality is, if I’m not going to be able to pay the rent, you’re not going to be able to collect it," Tobener said.

Another last-ditch tactic for negotiations: Promise to leave in exchange for a rent break.

"If you agree to X rent for the next six months, the landlord gets possession" at an agreed-upon date, Tobener said.

That agreement can be especially attractive to a landlord. Eviction protections have some landlords spooked that they'll never be able to collect back rent, even though the law says they're entitled to do so.

I'd think what's more important, or equally important, to a landlord is getting paid. It's security," Werner said.

Play Hardball

Now, should none of the above work, there are a handful of other tactics in the more confrontational realm that tenants can try. But, Tobener warns, doing so can lead to a rapid deterioration of the landlord-tenant relationship.

One of those methods is threatening to demand a jury trial, should a landlord try to evict. Because the capacity of local courts has been significantly limited due to the pandemic, there is likely to be a "huge" backlog of cases, which can play in a tenant's favor, Tobener said.

"If a tenant keeps demanding a jury trial, the landlord is still not going to see their day in court," he said. "You can drag it out, drag it out."

Landlords are well aware tenants can drag out eviction proceedings and other legal issues, Werner said. He once experienced that himself when trying to evict a tenant with a violent dog, ultimately offering her a buyout after she refused to leave, he said.

Tenants can also try looking for ways in which landlords are either breaking their lease agreements, such as limiting housing services (like heat) or breaching the "covenant of quiet enjoyment" by failing to address certain noisy nuisances.

Werner warned, though, that you can't just break your own window and say the landlord failed to tend to the upkeep of your apartment.

When considering if a landlord has breached your lease or failed to repair something they should have, "you throw it all at them" and itemize it, Tobener said. "No heat might be worth $100 a month," he said, while losing yard access due to construction or lack of maintenance might be worth more.

Sherburn-Zimmer agreed. "Send a letter to the landlord to remind them this is a big issue. Say under COVID, the access to the yard is a big hardship. The rent board will eventually give you a court date, and an administrative judge will rule on it."

Even if they don't give you a rent break, Sherburn-Zimmer said, "it will freak your landlord out so much it'll make them take care of the yard in the next week."

KQED housing reporter Molly Solomon contributed to this report. 

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