On April 30, Alechia Reese packed up the Brooklyn apartment she's lived in for the past five years with her 10-year-old daughter and sister and began the trek to her mother's home in Florida.
It wasn't something Reese envisioned doing even two months ago, but the 33-year-old's business — she owns a marketing and branding firm — has slowed down considerably since the coronavirus began ravaging the U.S. She and her sister could no longer afford their $4,200 monthly rent.
As soon as she started losing clients in March, Reese tried talking to her landlord about her situation, but he wasn't receptive to a compromise. Now, Reese plans to break her lease, which isn't up until September, regardless of the possible legal ramifications. The unemployment she might qualify for doesn't cover the total rent, let alone groceries and other essentials for her and her daughter, and she wants to help her mother out.
"I felt bad about him not getting his rent for [May], so I told him he could keep the deposit, but I can't snap my fingers and have it materialize," Reese tells CNBC Make It. "This isn't something that anyone planned, so we have to all pivot."
Brittiany Taylor is in a similar spot with her lease. Though the 33-year-old audience development manager is still employed, she left New York City for her father's condo in Washington D.C. over a month ago to be closer to her family. She has called and emailed her management company continuously over the past few weeks in order to break her lease, but they haven't responded to her. She hopes withholding May rent will get their attention.
"It doesn't feel right or fair, and I understand it's their business, but I don't feel good paying for a place I'm not using," Taylor tells CNBC Make It about the management company ignoring her calls and emails. "I'm going to be upset if I pay rent on the first and then I get laid off on the fourth."
Reese and Taylor are far from the only ones dealing with frustrating housing situations. While those with mortgages, including landlords, are getting some form of aid from the federal government, that has not been extended to the nation's 40 million-plus renters. And with some landlords being inflexible with repayment plans, that's left many — especially those who are out of work completely or have had their hours reduced — with one option: Breaking their leases.
Before breaking your lease, your first step should be to talk to your landlord about your current financial situation, Samuel J. Himmelstein, a New York City lawyer who represents tenants, tells CNBC Make It. If they have multiple tenants, they are likely already having these conversations and might have a financial hardship plan in place.
Negotiating for something like a lower monthly payment for a set amount of months, should be preferable to most landlords since it will be difficult for them to find someone to replace you, Himmelstein says. Plus, with all housing courts closed, they cannot sue you.
If you can't work anything out, then know that breaking a lease is difficult and often expensive.
"Unless you have a reason for terminating it, it remains binding, even if you move out and stop paying rent," he says. Your landlord may eventually come after you for the missing rent, though that could be a difficult process even when the courts reopen, especially if you have moved to a different state.
If your landlord won't play ball, as Taylor's wouldn't, then check what your rental agreement says about breaking your lease. Many require a penalty payment — sometimes as much as two months' worth of rent — and you will need to give proper notice, which varies by situation but is typically between 30 to 60 days. Additionally, research the tenant laws in your state to see what protections, if any, you might have.
Alternatively, the lease may also have a "force majeure" clause, which could let you out of your lease in the event of a disaster, though Himmelstein says that "it's not clear that that applies in a Covid world." Many leases specifically stipulate that a pandemic is not considered a disaster that lets you out of the contract.
You should also check your lease language to see if you can find a new tenant to take over the lease. That might be difficult right now, but it would save you from being on the hook for the rent. Alternatively, find a subletter. In New York City, landlords "cannot unreasonably refuse consent to a sublet," even if the lease says otherwise, Hammelstein says. Chances are, your landlord will be flexible now if you talk it out with them, but you will need to work with them to prevent any problems with the new tenant in the future.
If all else fails and you're stuck paying a fee, check to see if your renters insurance may cover some costs related to a broken lease in the event of a disaster, suggests Jeremy Quittner, editorial lead at Stash. If you can afford to do so, "consult a lawyer before attempting to terminate your lease, and if your landlord agrees to pause your rent, or to let you out of your lease, try to get it in writing," he says.
Taylor is hoping her landlord will be willing to work with her, noting that their unresponsiveness it taking a toll on her mental health. "At least answer my email so we can come up with a plan together," she says.