SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — The landlord had highlighted the first of the month on his office calendar and marked it as “Pay Day,” but now the first had come and gone, the one-week grace period was ending, and for the 13th consecutive month, Romeo Budhoo had collected less than half of his total rent. “Time to try begging for it,” he said, and he grabbed his booklet of receipts and walked out to his car.

He drove through the low-income neighborhoods of Schenectady, stopping at a half-dozen small homes that accounted for most of his income and all of his family’s savings. He cajoled $75 in cash from a laid-off hairdresser who owed him more than $7,000. “Thanks for at least trying to work with me,” he wrote on the rental receipt. He collected $200 from a renter who was $1,600 behind. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” Budhoo said, and then he continued up the street to his oldest property, a three-story home that had helped lift him into the middle class and was now sending him closer to bankruptcy.

Budhoo parked in front and flipped through his receipts. The tenant owed more than $12,000, and on the porch Budhoo saw a pile of warnings and eviction notices dating back almost a year.

“No more grace periods,” read one from last fall. “Pay now or leave.”

Romeo Budhoo’s properties in Schenectady, N.Y., include a house where he is owed more than $12,000. In the COVID economy of 2021, the federal government has created an ongoing grace period for renters until at least July, banning all evictions in an effort to hold back a historic housing crisis that is underway. (Libby March / The Washington Post)
Romeo Budhoo’s properties in Schenectady, N.Y., include a house where he is owed more than $12,000. In the COVID economy of 2021, the federal government has created an ongoing grace period for renters until at least July, banning all evictions in an effort to hold back a historic housing crisis that is underway. (Libby March / The Washington Post)

In the COVID economy of 2021, the federal government has created an ongoing grace period for renters until at least July, banning all evictions in an effort to hold back a historic housing crisis that is already underway. More than 8 million rental properties across the country are behind on payments by an average of $5,600, according to census data. Nearly half of those rental properties are owned not by banks or big corporations but instead by what the government classifies as “small landlords” — people who manage their own rentals and depend on them for basic income, and who are trapped between tenants who can’t pay and their own mounting bills for insurance, mortgages and property tax. According to government estimates, a third of small landlords are at risk of bankruptcy or foreclosure as the pandemic continues into its second year.

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For Budhoo, the essence of his problems came down to one house: 1042 Cutler St., a three-story square box built in 1901, with faded green siding and fresh graffiti spray-painted on the windows. The house had been sold four times out of foreclosure, condemned by the city, and scheduled for demolition when Budhoo first saw it after immigrating to New York from Guyana in the early 2000s. He’d worked at a nearby pick-and-pack warehouse for $8 an hour and saved up a small down payment toward a $79,000 purchase price. He’d rewired the electricity, gutted the plumbing, installed granite countertops, and begun renting it out for up to $950 per month. Gradually those profits had paid for more distressed properties, for his daughter’s college degree, and for a small home of his own where her diploma now hung above the entryway. He’d spent two decades growing his business on the first of each month until the pandemic hit upstate New York.

“Just a friendly reminder,” he’d written to the tenant, after the first missed payment in April 2020.

“Good morning! Are you able to pay rent?” he’d written after the second month.

“Please. I am willing to work with you,” he wrote after the government announced its first national eviction moratorium in September.

“Really? You’re still not going to pay ANYTHING?” he wrote after he read about the billions of government dollars being spent in rental assistance, for which his tenant never applied.

And now it had been a full year without payment, and Budhoo had maxed his credit cards, applied for a secondary loan on his 2015 Mercedes-Benz, defaulted on $13,000 in property taxes, and started taking medication for panic attacks and stomach ulcers. “Final collection notice,” read one of the bills that had been delivered to his own front door, and he’d begun mowing people’s lawns and selling eggplants out of his garden to neighbors for a couple dollars each.

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“This is robbery,” Budhoo had written. “What you’re doing now is stealing from me.”

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He got out of the car and walked around the outside of the house. He didn’t dare to knock, because the tenant had accused him of harassment and police had warned him about tenants’ rights and trespassing on his own property. Through the front window he could see a big-screen TV and two space heaters with wires running in every direction. The yard was littered with a few empty cigarette packs, wrappers and beer cans. He suspected the tenant not only was living free but also was damaging his home in the process.

“So much disrespect,” Budhoo said. He kicked a beer can across the yard but then walked over to pick it up. Even if he no longer had control over his properties, he was still legally responsible for their upkeep, and he’d been fined four times for his tenants’ trash violations. He took a trash bag out of his car and started cleaning up the yard.

Alfonzo Hill at the house at 1042 Cutler St. During the pandemic, Hill lost his job as a cook and found himself unable to pay rent, but he remains in the house because of an eviction moratorium. (Libby March / The Washington Post)
Alfonzo Hill at the house at 1042 Cutler St. During the pandemic, Hill lost his job as a cook and found himself unable to pay rent, but he remains in the house because of an eviction moratorium. (Libby March / The Washington Post)

Alfonzo Hill watched from inside the house until the landlord walked back to his car. “Yeah, like you need my money,” Hill said after he watched the landlord drive his Mercedes up the block, and then he came outside, lit a cigarette and sat on the porch.

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He resented many things about life at 1042 Cutler: the 2-foot hole in the bathroom ceiling, the lingering smell of the previous tenants’ dogs, the broken toilet that flushed only after he poured in a bucket of water. But what bothered him most was always having to repeat the same humiliations to the landlord about why he hadn’t paid, couldn’t pay, didn’t have any money to pay.

“Look, I don’t want to be living here, either,” Hill had told Budhoo at one point, but he also believed the pandemic had given him no choice.

He’d been paying rent on time for several months before the pandemic, living at 1042 Cutler with his 13-year-old daughter and his girlfriend and cooking at a Brick House Tavern for $700 a week until New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned indoor dining on March 16, 2020.

Hill had lost his job the next day, and then, a few months later, he’d lost his girlfriend after arguments about the bills they couldn’t pay. He’d worked a job ever since he turned 14 — dog walking, cooking, cleaning, roofing, landscaping, demolition — and somehow he’d found work again in the middle of the pandemic at another restaurant, but most of his paycheck went to a babysitter for his daughter, and eventually that restaurant closed down, too.

Now he was 38, unemployed, broke, and living alone with his daughter and her two guinea pigs. She was attending sixth grade virtually in their living room, but Hill believed the best way to educate a child during a pandemic was to prepare her for reality by teaching her some hard truths. Life wasn’t a Disney movie, he told her. They were down to less than a few hundred dollars in savings. The pandemic was far from over. They were more likely to get COVID-19 and more likely to die of it because they were poor and Black. And now the harsh reality he told her about the landlord was this:

“He’s basically the exterminator and we’re the rats. Do you understand that?”

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“Kind of,” she said. “I guess so.”

“What I’m saying is he wants to get rid of us. It doesn’t matter what we’re dealing with. We’re not human to him. We’re money. It’s all a big game.”

So Hill had taught himself the rules, researching on the internet about tenant rights, rent strikes in New York and the eviction moratorium. He read that almost 1 million other renters in New York state were behind on payments and that 80% of those renters had also reported having lost income during the pandemic. Hill watched online as Cuomo said: “The number one issue that people talk to me about probably is rent and fear about being able to pay their rent. And this just takes that issue off the table.” He listened during the presidential campaign as Joe Biden said: “There should be rent forgiveness … Not paid later — forgiveness.”

And so when Hill finally received some small unemployment payments and a four-figure stimulus check from the government, he used the money to fix the engine in his broken-down minivan, buy a little extra food, purchase some basic furniture, pay down his credit card, and surprise his daughter with a decent laptop for her virtual classes, because why would he spend what little money he had on rent that he didn’t actually have to pay?

A solitary light burns in a house in Schenectady, N.Y. (Libby March / The Washington Post)
A solitary light burns in a house in Schenectady, N.Y. (Libby March / The Washington Post)

The landlord had threatened to tow his car out of the driveway. He’d left fliers on the porch with information about homeless shelters. He’d stopped making even the most basic repairs, and now the furnace was broken and the house was so cold that the city had condemned it as unlivable, and yet they were living there still.

“I need some air,” he told his daughter, and he grabbed a beer and headed back outside.

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A collapsing bathroom ceiling at 1042 Cutler St. in Schenectady, N.Y., goes unrepaired as the landlord says he, too, has no money. (Libby March / The Washington Post)
A collapsing bathroom ceiling at 1042 Cutler St. in Schenectady, N.Y., goes unrepaired as the landlord says he, too, has no money. (Libby March / The Washington Post)
Romeo Budhoo, the landlord of 1042 Cutler St. in Schenectady, N.Y., says his tenant has allowed trash to build up outside the residence. (Libby March / The Washington Post)
Romeo Budhoo, the landlord of 1042 Cutler St. in Schenectady, N.Y., says his tenant has allowed trash to build up outside the residence. (Libby March / The Washington Post)

A few more cans on his porch. More trash littered across his yard. Budhoo stopped at 1042 Cutler the next morning to survey the latest insults to his house, and then he took out his cellphone and dialed a number for “Julie Eviction.”

“Can we meet?” he asked. “There must be something I can do.”

A few minutes later, he pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot, and Julie Horn was waiting for him with a red manila folder labeled “1042 Cutler.” Horn was a landlord with a dozen of her own properties, but she’d also spent the past six years as an eviction specialist, charging a small fee to help other landlords file court documents, notarize forms, and serve eviction paperwork to tenants. Her job had become a regular part of the housing cycle in Schenectady, a Rust Belt city of 65,000 where more than half of all residents rented their homes, most renters earned less than $30,000, and about 1,000 tenants were evicted each year.

Before the pandemic, Budhoo had typically worked with Horn to evict a tenant every few months. He gave a short grace period after the first of the month, and then within five or six weeks he was usually on-site with the sheriff to evict the tenant and change the locks. He’d built the expenses into his annual budget under a category labeled “routine turnover.”

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But now Horn flipped though the folder for 1042 Cutler and pulled out paperwork dating to July. The courts were still technically hearing eviction cases even with the moratorium in place, but each time Horn went to the court, the law required something new: a longer grace period for tenants, notarized hardship forms, proof that the tenant wasn’t a veteran. Even if a judge eventually decided to grant an eviction order, the sheriff’s office couldn’t carry it out until the federal moratorium was lifted, and already the sheriff had warned about a backlog of up to 3,000 eviction cases that could take months to process.

On her business card, Horn called herself “The Hit Lady,” and she was used to hiding in her van and staking out tenants so she could deliver her court documents. She had also become used to people running away, crying, begging or threatening her, but what she’d begun to encounter lately was indifference.

“The word is out,” she said. “I’m a shark with no teeth.”

“So that’s it?” Budhoo said. “We’re powerless?”

“That’s not how the city sees it,” she said. “You’re the landlord, remember? You’re the villain. You’re greedy. You’re trying to put a helpless family out on the streets.”

“This house is slowly killing me,” he said.

“Have you thought about trading cash for keys?”

“What?” he asked, and Horn explained a strategy that was becoming popular among landlords in Schenectady. They offered to pay delinquent tenants more than $500 in cash and forgive all overdue rent if the tenant agreed to move out.

“That’s crazy,” Budhoo said. “I don’t have any more money to waste. I’d rather walk off a bridge. I’m serious. I’d just as soon commit suicide.”

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She looked at the file and flipped through the paperwork. “Could you sell?” she asked. “Get what you can and then pay down your debts?”

“I’ve thought about it,” he said, but he’d also thought about how much he might get in return for a 120-year-old house in unknown condition, with a tenant who refused to allow potential buyers inside. Even if he could convince someone to purchase it blind, the new owner also would have to agree to inherit a tenant who didn’t pay and had a legal right to stay in the home until the eviction moratorium ended.

“Maybe if I’m lucky I’d break even and get back to zero,” Budhoo said. “And then what? I put my whole life into this business. It’s all I have. I’d be erasing 20 years.”

A few days later, he got an invitation from another small landlord. “Going broke? It’s time for landlords to unite,” the message read, and a few hours later, Budhoo was sitting in a small office with 15 other property owners, each of whom was out at least $10,000 in rent.

He knew everyone in the room, and their stories were similar to his: Most of them were immigrants who had arrived in Schenectady at its lowest point in the early 2000s, after it had lost half of its manufacturing jobs and a third of its population. The city at that time was blighted by thousands of vacant homes, and instead of spending $18,000 to demolish each one, the mayor had come up with a plan to go to New York City and recruit Guyanese immigrants who had built a reputation for fixing up derelict property. The mayor handed out his cellphone number and offered to sell houses for as little as $1, and more than 5,000 Guyanese began to move. They bought cheap homes, rehabbed them, rented them out, and then started paying property taxes that helped revive the city.

Now those same landlords were operating at a loss, and the city was trying to survive its own pandemic budget crisis by increasing their trash fees and raising property taxes for the first time in five years.

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“We saved this city, and now we need help and get nothing,” said Mohamed Hafez, a landlord who was out more than $20,000 in rent.

“I’m broke. I’m eating from the food pantry,” said another.

“Where does it stop? I’ve heard people say: ‘Housing is a basic right. Cancel rent forever.'”

“Why don’t the grocery stores just start giving away food?” Hafez said.

“It’s a disaster, but what can we do? ” Budhoo said, and the other landlords started talking about how they dealt with delinquent tenants. Some were trading cash for keys. Some were cutting off their own heat or vandalizing their houses, hoping to make them so uninhabitable that tenants would leave. Others had stopped renting out vacant properties during the moratorium, believing it was better to lose income than to risk taking on a tenant who couldn’t be forced to pay.

Then one of the landlords started to tell the story of what he called an “involuntary eviction” that had happened a few weeks earlier in Albany, where a landlord had become incensed after trying and failing to evict his tenants for months. The landlord had broken into his own apartment early on a Sunday morning, held the tenants at gunpoint, restrained them with zip ties, hauled them out of his apartment, and then deposited them at a cemetery 30 miles from the property.

“When you kick a dog, eventually it’s going to bite,” one of the landlords said.

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“That guy’s a hero,” said another.

“It’s not a real solution,” Budhoo said again, and they sat in silence for a moment until Hafez spoke up. He’d run for City Council a few years earlier, and he knew what might get the government’s attention. “The only leverage we have is property tax,” he said, because property taxes accounted for nearly half of the mayor’s annual budget, and gathered in the room were landlords who owned a total of more than 200 rental units and paid a combined $1.2 million in annual property taxes to the city. Some, like Budhoo, had already defaulted on their taxes because they couldn’t afford to pay. Others were taking out loans or using savings to pay the city, and now Hafez suggested they stop. “Imagine what would happen if we got every landlord to hold back property taxes in protest,” he said, and he described a housing economy in which tenants didn’t pay landlords, landlords didn’t pay taxes, and a city could no longer afford to pay for its police or its schools.

“The whole system crashes down,” he said.

“And we’re going down with it,” Budhoo said.

The only immediate solution he could think of was also the most unlikely, to collect the rent, so one morning he drove back to 1042 Cutler to try again. He parked his car and watched the front door. Maybe this would be the day the tenant came outside. Maybe he’d walk over to the car with a check for the monthly rent or even for the full $12,000 that he owed. Budhoo watched as shadows moved across the curtains in the living room. He counted the empty cans on the front porch. He sent a text message to his wife: “Nothing yet,” he said. He listened to music and played a game on his phone, and after a while he glanced at his clock and realized he’d been sitting in the car for almost half an hour. “Pathetic,” he said. “More time wasted, wasted, wasted.” He couldn’t go inside the house. He couldn’t demand rent. He couldn’t kick the tenant out. He couldn’t do much of anything but sit and wait and hope, until eventually out the windshield he noticed something happening a few blocks down the street.

A woman was throwing clothing out of a house and onto the lawn. She carried a chair down the front stairs and put in on the sidewalk. It looked to Budhoo like an eviction, so he drove closer, parked and walked up to the house.

“Are you the landlord?” he asked the woman, and she nodded.

“Wow. Congratulations,” he said, gesturing at the trash piled up on the sidewalk. “I’ve been trying to get one of my houses back for more than a year. How’d you do it?”

“It’s not what you think,” the landlord said. “I didn’t evict. They just left.”

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“Yeah, come on,” Budhoo said.

She laughed and then began to tell him about the ways she’d dealt with derelict tenants during the past year — how she applied pressure through eviction paperwork, stopped making repairs, filed suit in small claims court, and threatened to garnish wages until eventually a few tenants chose to vacate on their own. “I like to be reasonable, but eventually it’s either my house or theirs,” she said, and this is what victory looked like in the pandemic economy of 2021: an empty house, a family that had disappeared overnight, 28 garbage bags piled high on the sidewalk, an overturned dresser with initials carved into its side, a child’s mattress soaked through by rain, and thousands of grains of rice scattered across the street.

“I’ve been lucky,” she said. “I only rent to good people, and most have paid. It seems like every other landlord is going under, but I’m actually trying to invest. I’m looking to buy.”

Budhoo helped her pick up trash bags and then tossed them into an industrial dumpster.

“I might have an opportunity for you,” he said, already feeling defeated by what he was about to suggest. “You know 1042 Cutler? It’s a good house. I can give you a good price.”