Offering rent forgiveness in a time of need

Gillette business owner Nadith Smith , sitting, holds the hand of her landlord, LaShawn Foulkes, in the building Smith rents space in to operate Classical Homeopathy near downtown Gillette. With the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering Smith’s business, Foulkes, who is a part of Dirt LLC, has granted Smith’s rent forgiveness until her business resumes operations as usual.

Nadith Smith has been renting the building that she runs Classical Homeopathy near downtown Gillette out of from the same landlord group for years.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to shut down her storefront. Because most of her business comes from working with patients physically in the building, money has gotten tight.

“My business was going great,” she said. “In fact, the day before we closed down I had one of my biggest days, and (closing) just broke my heart.”

But she got a big boost from a member of Dirt LLC, the property management group Smith has been renting from for years. One of the landlords gave Smith back her March rent and told her that she doesn’t need to pay any rent until her business can operate as usual again.

“She’s been with us for probably six to seven years and she has a good heart, and there’s a lot of things she does for the community,” said LaShawn Foulkes, a partner of Dirt LLC. “It’s not a big business, and if you don’t have income coming in for a couple of months it makes it real tough.”

Foulkes said the rental group was only offering free rent for Smith during this time because she is the longest-tenured renter it has.

Though Smith’s rent situation is an extreme case, other landlords in Gillette have been offering payment plans and have waived late fees to help residents who have been laid off or had hours cut because of the pandemic. As of Friday, most are finding themselves struggling with their second rent payment due since virus restrictions went into effect in Wyoming.

Local landlord Pat Avery has a commercial tenant who owns a tattoo shop. Nobody has been able to get a tattoo at a shop in Gillette since late March because of the COVID-19 regulations. Avery cut the tattoo shop owner’s monthly rent in half for two months.

“Most of these guys are, ‘Whatever I make this month is what I spend this month,’” Avery said about running a small business. “When you’re investing in equipment and opening in other locations, cash flow is not quite there.”

At Mountain View Apartments, owner CSM Corp. implemented a hardship assistance policy for those affected financially by the pandemic. Renters who can’t pay rent because they lost their jobs can fill out a form and request to defer the upcoming month’s rent payment for later. They will still have to pay it all back eventually during the remainder of their lease agreement, but late fees, interest and current rent won’t need to be paid until conditions become normal again if an applicant qualifies.

“It is kind of a month-by-month thing. Originally, it was for April to get everybody through, and then now it’s to be determined,” said Anita Scheeler, assistant manager at Mountain View Apartments. “We are not evicting anybody because of it, because (the pandemic) is out of your control.”

While Mountain View has set up measures to keep roofs over renters heads, very few have applied for the hardship assistance plan. One renter has filled out the hardship form for May, manager Kim McCuin said.

Other landlords like at Indian Hills Apartments have implemented similar policies. Property manager Kristy Brayton said that the company is offering payment plans that must be paid within a renter’s lease term.

“They have to still pay their rent back. They just can pay a little less now and a little more later,” Brayton said. “They have to prove that they are having troubles because of COVID. It’s not just because they went and bought a $5,000 camper or something.”

Of 78 Indian Hills apartment units, there are 12 empty, which she said is an unusually high number.

Wile some landlords like Mountain View and Indian Hills have crafted policies to help tenants affected by the pandemic, others haven’t.

South Forks Apartments waived some late fees when there were mass oil and coal layoffs in Gillette in 2015 and 2016, its new ownership hasn’t yet offered a relief plan so far during the pandemic, said leasing agent Katie Spurlin.

Warlow Apartments isn’t offering anything special during the pandemic. But even before the outbreak, the company has a track record of working with people by allowing payment plans and that continues, said property manager Jessica Smith.

“We’re just working with them, we’re not deferring anything,” Smith said. “They have to set up a payment plan and they have to be in contact with us. They can’t just not be in contact with us and expect rent to work with them.”

Most of the apartment building representatives in Gillette report that most renters have been paying on time and didn’t asked for assistance with April rent.

However, as the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown drags on and another month’s rent is due, money may run out and the need for payment plans and other measures could become more necessary.

It’s something Gov. Mark Gordon said he’s asked about frequently. During a virus response briefing Friday, the governor said he is asked about ordering a moratorium on evictions because of the pandemic. He hasn’t done that and has repeatedly said that if the state does take any action about missing rent or mortgage payments, any action also has to be fair for landlords, who also have bills and expenses that need to be paid.

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