Some businesses worry they won’t be able to make rent due to the loss of business after the mall closed
VANCOUVER — Vancouver Mall has been closed since March 27, and likely will remain so at least through May 4, barring another extension of Washington’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order.
That means dozens of businesses have no revenue stream, and likely won’t for the next month, at least.
Which is why several retailers say they were dismayed to learn that Centennial Real Estate, a Texas-based company which owns the mall, is doing little to help them financially.
A letter obtained by Clark County Today, which was sent to several business owners at the mall, says April rent payment can be delayed until July 1, without “late fees, penalties, or interest otherwise allowable under your lease.”
“Please note that this accommodation does not alter, modify, diminish or otherwise amend any of your obligations under your lease in any way,” the letter continues.
One business owner who spoke on condition of anonymity said he has locations in several other malls, and that those companies have, in most cases, been willing to discuss reducing rent payments, or spreading them out, in order to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 shutdowns.
“It just seems unreasonable to say ‘the lease hasn’t changed, you still owe us the amount but here’s a two-month extension,’” said the business owner.
“Are they gonna get paid any sort of a bailout, but at the same time expect us to pay the full amount due on the lease,” he wondered. “You know, those are important questions that need to be asked.”
Clark County Today did seek comment from Centennial Real Estate, but did not receive a response. Vancouver Mall General Manager Tracy Peters did supply the following comment.
“With COVID-19 closures throughout the retail industry, these are trying times for nearly every business. At Centennial, we deeply value the relationships we have with each of our tenants and retail partners and empathize with the economic struggles this global pandemic has caused them. We are working closely with each of our retail partners to address their immediate financial concerns and to help them prepare to re-open their businesses at Vancouver Mall when this worldwide healthcare crisis subsides.”
The business owner we spoke with said he began losing business in early March, and expects even after the mall reopens, it will take a substantial amount of time before traffic returns to normal.
“If we open in May, we might have another loss because of traffic,” he said. “And maybe my employees got new jobs and we have to re-staff and have new people. And so it might be really difficult.”
For its part, Centennial has said it will “continue to evaluate this rapidly evolving situation,” so there is a possibility they will look to work with retailers on lease agreements and rental amounts.
Rent forbearance creates confusion
The situation at Vancouver Mall is hardly unique. Small businesses across Clark County are struggling to come to grips with how they’ll pay the bills during the shutdown, and especially once things start back up again.
It is also creating confusion amongst people who live in apartments and rentals.
According to the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC), 69 percent of April rents were paid on time. That’s down from 82 percent in April of last year.
“The COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in significant health and financial challenges for apartment residents and multifamily owners, operators and employees in communities across the country,” said Doug Bibby, president of NMHC. “However, it is important to note that a large number of residents met their obligations despite unparalleled circumstances, and we will see that figure increase over the coming weeks.”
There has also been confusion surrounding a 30-day moratorium on evictions approved as part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency declaration.
At the most recent Vancouver City Council meeting, councilors voted on emergency resolutions, two of which dealt with the issue. The first makes private residential foreclosures illegal, except where there are “proven threats to the safety of others or protection of the property,” and the other protects small businesses with fewer than 50 employees from being evicted due to non-payment through April 30.
But neither measure means renters or small businesses won’t have to pay rent eventually, if they don’t want to be evicted.
“I know there has been confusion. We’ve had emails from people asking if they have to pay their rent,” said Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle. “I know we’re going to need some very detailed explanations for folks about what all of this means.”
The city of Vancouver has been discussing whether or not any kind of rent forgiveness program is possible, but City Attorney Jonathan Young said there’s little that can be done. Property owners have a “reasonable expectation” under the law that they should be able to earn income from their properties.
“Ultimately, even if that property owner has a remedy by turning around and bringing a lawsuit against the city, that can mean months or years of litigation in order to resolve the question of how much has truly been forgiven,” said Young.
For now, city councilors voted to support the emergency order, but stopped short of discussing any further protections for renters or small businesses.
The Washington Landlord Association (WLA) has been pushing the governor to clarify that renters must pay rent if they are able to do so, as well as potential financial help for property owners whose renters are unable to pay.
The state’s Department of Commerce has a Landlord Mitigation Fund, created in 2018, to assist property owners with claims related to lost rental income. WLA is urging property owners to sign up for a vendor number through that page in case the state agrees to help out.
The state has also set up a list of resources for renters or homeowners having trouble making rent or mortgage payments during the COVID-19 crisis.
- Details on the moratorium are available on Governor Inslee’s Medium page also.
- Washington Homeownership Hotline (877-894-HOME)
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau suggestions
- Rental assistance & counseling (800-569-4287)
- List of Housing Counseling Agencies