COVID-19 has left many struggling to pay rent, but Asheville resident Rachel Atkins is facing a different housing challenge: She was told she had to pay a full 12-month lease in advance because of her job in the service industry.
Atkins, who works at a downtown restaurant, has been trying to find a house and move in with her partner. They found a property at 74 Livingston St. and scheduled a viewing on June 22. The house was perfect, and within an hour, they had submitted an application with WNC Property Management, which oversees the rental.
The next morning, Atkins received the following email from WNC Property Management: “Since your employment is in the service industry, and many businesses in the service industry are currently struggling, closed or potentially closing in the near future, you would be required to prepay your 12-month lease in advance.”
Atkins offered to send previous pay stubs and a letter from her employers verifying her job. But that wasn’t good enough. “[W]e are in very challenging and uncertain economic times, and there is a good chance that many businesses in the service industry will be closing over the next 12 months,” a response from the property managers read.
The bill for the entire 12-month lease added up to $14,400, Atkins said. After the property manager said it couldn’t compromise, she posted the exchange to Facebook, prompting hundreds of comments in several locally oriented Facebook groups.
“I just feel stressed out about finding a spot to move in,” Atkins said. “It’s already a tricky market without adding in all these layers.”
Jim Barrett, executive director of Asheville-based nonprofit Pisgah Legal Services, says that requiring a year’s rent in advance is likely legal. However, he continues, the requirement may run counter to “the spirit of the residential security deposit law.”
“This practice probably does not violate the Fair Housing laws because working in a particular job is not a protected class, ordinarily,” Barrett said. “Landlords can discriminate based on credit checks, so I guess landlords can require a prospective tenant to demonstrate ability to pay.”
WNC Property Management posted a statement to its Facebook page, saying “rent prepayment is not our company policy across the board for the service industry, as many have jumped to the conclusion.
“For this particular property, a [previous] tenant lost their job and was unable to pay rent, and the homeowner is requiring our company to ask all future tenants, where 100% of household income comes from a service industry job, to prepay their rent,” the statement continued. “We are contractually obligated to follow our client’s instructions.
“We stand with all those that work in Asheville’s service industry and realize that they are the fabric of our city and regret that our initial response did not reflect this. As a small, locally owned business that has been hit as well, we empathize with anyone that has been affected by these challenging economic times. We have had to shut down the vacation rental management part of our business and have suffered large financial losses as a result.”
After receiving multiple comments on that statement, the management group released a subsequent message, which read: “The property in question has been removed from the market as the owner understands some were having trouble meeting a prepaid lease agreement. They understand the difficult time that many are going through right now and in no way wanted to add to anyone’s difficulties. They are now weighing options moving forward, and in the meantime, we have chosen not to relist the property unless it can be offered with no prepaid requirement.”
Atkins doubts she will apply for the house in question after her experience but says she is happy other people may now be able to qualify for a home.