FARGO — After Austin Albrecht lost his job at a cleaning company during the coronavirus pandemic, the 24-year-old stocked up on canned goods and dried noodles. Now he says he can’t afford to pay his half of $1,200 rent.

Caitlin Ackley and her fiance, Daniel Stroud, are in quarantine. A bank employee handling fraud cases two weeks ago, but now unable to work, 28-year-old Ackley is self-treating symptoms of COVID-19 — a dry and uncontrollable cough, difficulty breathing — with Tylenol and Vicks VapoRub.

Due to a limited number of test kits, Ackley’s 101-degree fever keeps her from getting a coronavirus test locally. Hospitals are stipulating health care workers and first responders come first, she was told. With $1,200 left in her account, she can’t pay her $1,000 rent, plus the cost of medicine and food.

Gabe Schwanke, 24, recently lost his job as a prep cook, but he’s been stocking up on nonperishable food items, potatoes, and rice for the last month. He applied for unemployment benefits for the first time, but the promised $148 a week won’t be enough to cover his $535 monthly rent.

Albrecht, Ackley, Schwanke and many other Fargo area residents said they have received letters or telephone calls from their landlords, who are demanding rent to be paid on time and in full by the beginning of April.

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Schwanke is angry. So is Albrecht. Ackley is too sick for anger; she feels helpless.

They’re scared to go out, scared to spend money. They must stay home. “Ride it out,” Schwanke said.

“I don’t really have any options. I can’t go anywhere, and I can’t make money, but I still have to pay all the bills,” Ackley said. Her voice sounds strained, wheezy. “People are already struggling a lot, and there’s no time to wait. They need solutions now.”

A few days later, Ackley said her condition had not improved, but her fever had not climbed any higher. Family and friends cannot come over to help. She and her fiance have to fend for themselves.

Albrecht said he can’t get through to property management to negotiate. “Being forced to pay rent in a worldwide crisis is pissing me off, to be blunt. I have no problem paying rent or with my landlord on any day, but right now, we’re just asking for a delay of rent. I’ll still pay the month’s rent, just delay it.”

Schwanke, who is also a musician, is grateful for the help he will receive from unemployment benefits and the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill that President Donald Trump signed Friday.

“They will help you pay your rent to a certain degree, but it’s a whole process to go through, like setting up for unemployment. I did it for the first time and applied last Thursday, and I got my letter back, and it’s not much, but it’s something,” Schwanke said.

Gabe Schwanke holds up the letter telling him to pay rent on time. Special to The Forum
Gabe Schwanke holds up the letter telling him to pay rent on time. Special to The Forum

Jobless claims in North Dakota soared to nearly 14,000 over a recent nine-day period, setting a grim record and underscoring the rising cost of statewide efforts, including orders to suspend on-site service at bars, restaurants and other businesses, to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

People in the Fargo area and across the country are organizing on social media under political organizations like Rent Strike 2020, which has attracted more than 8,000 followers on Facebook. Many are calling for tenants to collectively refuse to pay rent during the pandemic.

Locally, landlord watch groups have formed, and they’re sharing information about landlords demanding rent, despite tenants’ growing inability to pay. So far, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum hasn’t made a decision on whether to order a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic like his Minnesota counterpart, Gov. Tim Walz, did on March 23.

Rents will still have to be paid, even if a moratorium on evictions is declared, but many tenants are asking for payments to be delayed.

A breath of fresh air for North Dakota tenants came on Thursday, March 26, when the state’s Supreme Court suspended all residential evictions during the pandemic. Critics, however, say the suspension and the federal relief doesn’t go far enough.

Austin Albrecht has stocked up on food because of the coronavirus pandemic. Special to The Forum
Austin Albrecht has stocked up on food because of the coronavirus pandemic. Special to The Forum

Rep. Mary Schneider, D-Fargo, Michelle Rydz of the High Plains Fair Housing Center in Grand Forks, Fargo City Commissioner John Strand, and grassroots groups are working collectively and separately to put pressure on Burgum to order a moratorium to end all mortgage evictions, foreclosures, utility shut-offs, and related late fees during the pandemic.

The Forum called all of the local real estate management companies known to be demanding rent from tenants during the pandemic.

Stacey Olson, director for Valley Rental, a real estate company with 1,400 units, said her company is open to discussing issues with tenants.

“We are working on a process to put in place to handle any tenants with a hardship," Olson said. “We’re trying to maintain business as usual as well and help our tenants with what they need. But if you need help, you have to ask for it. I don’t assume that you need help.”

One of the local companies being talked about in online forums is Craig Properties Inc. When contacted by The Forum, a company representative declined to comment “on anything right now,” after being asked about a March 19 letter to tenants. The letter warned tenants about social distancing, reducing noise levels, limiting visitors and paying attention to what is being flushed down toilets.

“All residents should be complying with the CDC guidelines, including social distancing and remaining in your unit if you either have the virus or have been in contact with someone who has,” the memorandum stated. “We would like to remind all residents that the lease will remain in effect, and that, notwithstanding the difficult times, rent still must be paid on time.

“Late fees will be applied to any late rent. If you know that you will be late with rent, please notify the office in advance.”

Messages were left with three other real estate management companies in Fargo who sent out similar letters about rent, but The Forum received no response regarding what their policies will be during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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