Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Lessons from Quarantine: Part 1

There's nothing like a pandemic to make you want to avoid the grocery store like the plague...Literally!  In the past 90 days of quarantine we've gone to the grocery store once, Target once, and the pharmacy twice.  When I say we're avoiding the grocery store, I mean it.  We stocked up on staples before the "stay at home" order went into effect.  We focused on frozen vegetables, canned food, dried beans, grains, flour, etc.  Furthermore, I've realized that I really dislike that store.  It's not where I do the bulk of my shopping anyway, but a convenient place for staples...  But this Coronavirus...  It has somehow managed to draw into focus my priorities.  If I don't like that place, why do I go there?  Because it's convenient?  But is it?  Is it really convenient?  It seems pretty inconvenient to go consistently to a place I dislike to give them my money.  It didn't use to be quite like that.  It crept up on us both...  We used to do more than 50% of our grocery shopping at the local farmer's market, often up to 75%, and just used the grocery store to fill in with things like coffee, toilet paper, tofu, tempeh, and the like.  As busyness set in, there were more quick trips to the neighborhood grocery store.  You might try to defend me by suggesting that we were probably saving money.  We weren't.  The grocery store in my neighborhood doesn't have great sales or stellar quality.  It's really pretty average, didn't save me money, and doesn't have the "world's best organics."  So, what gives?

Being forced into quarantine, we've all been forced to decide where we spend the effort going.  It's
because we're limited.  It's also because we know we're going to wait in lines that are completely insane only to find out that we can't even get what we really want anyway.  Plus we will have risked contaminating ourselves with an illness that is claiming more lives every day!  All that for a place I actually don't really like?  In my neighborhood, Inwood, there's a farmer's market every Saturday...even in the winter.  Come rain, shine, or pandemic, my farmer's market is there...And so am I.  I love it there.  I feel good about supporting local farmers just upstate of me.  I also feel really good about what I am putting into my body.  I feel good literally walking there and placing my body in that physical space.  This highlights a realization for me that I think I've been coming to in other areas of my life...  I really don't care to place my physical body into spaces that don't feel good.  How simple is that?  Why wasn't I able to conceive that in such a simple way before now?  Perhaps I wasn't ready for the idea.

Last week on Saturday, we went to the farmer's market where we could easily purchase produce, eggs, bread, meat, and cheese (for anyone that consumes those things).  We bought what we needed, and went home.  Later, I realized that I needed an ingredient and decided to walk down the street to a local shop that is a gourmet grocery, independently owned.  I supported them and visited a little shop that I really enjoy.  I avoided a place that I do not enjoy.  Simple.

When we emerge from this crazy, alternate universe we've been spewed into, there are some businesses that will not be there.  Some will literally never open the door again.  My neighborhood grocery store is pretty safe, I think.  The teeny, gourmet grocery in my neighborhood?  I doubt they're safe.  It would break my heart if they closed.  Likewise, if my local farmer's market shut down, I would be devastated.

Show me your money, I'll show you your values.

Sounds harsh, doesn't it?  Sometimes reality stinks.  If I really look at myself, I have to be honest that outwardly, it looks like I value a dimly light place with a tiny organics section and too much shelf space devoted to a brand I literally refuse to buy...  WHAT?!   Well, it seems pretty clear to me that I either need to make peace with becoming someone I don't really appreciate and adopting a new set of values that I also don't like, OR  put my money where my values are...

I choose the latter.

Our Quarantine: The First 90 Days

We're about 90 days into quarantine at the writing of this piece.

My partner and I just completed our school year, which was quite an adventure, though I have learned this about myself:  I like working at home. I have the discipline to be successful at it.  I also feel like just the act of losing the commute has given me custody of more of my time: the most precious commodity to me.  The time gained has allowed us to exercise more, sleep more, and eat better.  In fact, my partner has finally perfected a cookie recipe she's been working on, in addition to hand-rolled pasta: linguine, ravioli, etc.

This unplanned slow down has had several side effects in my life.

This first is lost income.When "in the building," teachers have the ability to earn extra money by running after school programs, clubs, coaching, directing, or scoring exams.  All of those things were cancelled when school went remote.  I lost hours at my seasonal side job due to lack of people coming in due to the pandemic.  We've also lost rental income.  We've both kept our regular paychecks, and I realize how lucky that makes us.  We're still able to save money, although at a diminished rate compared to what it was before.  Many people aren't as lucky as we've been.  I completely recognize that.  Sometimes I feel completely redundant, but the fact that our lives are budgeted more or less to one income means that we have a significant amount of wiggle room if something crazy like this happens.

I've also realized that paying the extra fee for grocery delivery is worth it.  Amazon finally gave us "permission to shop" at both Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods.  We pay a delivery fee plus tip for the service, but honestly, it's worth it.  We only order every two weeks or so for items we cannot find at our local farmer's market or our local tiny gourmet grocery.  I don't think we're paying any more or less than before, but we're being more deliberate.  While I realize we're contributing to the huge corporation that is Amazon, we're also focusing the bulk of our shopping on the farmer's market, and I value the higher quality I receive from Whole Foods versus my local chain grocery.  I also value organics and not needing to physically go to the store.  I used to physically go to two separate stores EVERY weekend plus the farmer's market run.  That's a lot of running around that I don't miss.  I think this is a habit that will remain in our lives.

I am lucky enough to do some acting every Spring in a play festival, which I truly love.  I was very nervous that it had been cancelled this year, but the directorial staff of the production company was brilliant enough to re-imagine it as a series of radio plays that would be published via podcast.  While the stipend for this work was modest, the creation of art itself brought tremendous joy to me.  This is tremendously different from how I felt with the loss of my side job.  After my seasonal side job came to an end, I realized that I was thrilled to have my time back, and that it was costing me way more hours that the money was worth.  I think that's something the Covid quarantine has done for me.  It has make me realize how much I value my time.  I find myself evaluating things in my life according to a very different currency.  How much of my time will this task take me?  Do I value the task enough to spend my time doing it?  During the past 90 days, I have spent really very little time doing things I simply don't like.  I have been back to the basics.  For me, those things are: healthy living, learning, art, and relationships.

I've been going on hikes every day.  We've always cooked at home, but we've been taking our time, and really enjoying the creation of home cooked meals.  I've had more virtual happy hours and phone calls with loved ones that I had before.  We're not in person, but connecting more deliberately.  I want to carry those habits forward.  Also, I need more art in my life, and I'm willing to evict a few things in order to make that happen.

Have you been finding yourself evaluating life through the lens of this currency called "time?"  What habits or changes are you likely to carry into your future as a result of your experience during Covid? What have you learned about what you value?

Friday, July 10, 2020

Being a Landlord During COVID-19

This post was originally written on April 16, 2020.  While I don't always specify that information, it seems important given the rapidly changing face of COVID in our country.

We own a rental property on the west coast.  Pre-COVID-19, our tenants were going to pay for items that needed repair due to their own negligence.  We had already paid for the repair, and they were going to pay us back for it the following month.  It honestly was a really minor issue, no big deal to either party.  Then, the coronavirus struck.  Out of concern for our tenants, we reached out to the management company and offered to allow them to spread out or defer this charge-back as needed.  I have no idea what industry they work in and to what degree their finances have been impacted. We have no direct contact, it's all via the management company.

Apparently, the tenants were happy with that and deferred the charge-back.  Additionally, they requested to pay their rent in two installments, which was fine.  So far things in that arena are working out alright for me, but I am very much aware that as these "stay at home" orders continue, things could get increasingly stickier for everyone involved in rental real estate.  Right now there are orders in place all over the country that prevent evictions for a certain amount of time.  They also allow renters to avoid late fees for nonpayment.  The problem is that these rent payments stack up.  Who wants to have a several thousand dollars past due rent bill hanging over their head?  That sounds like a huge mountain to climb, and I don't wish it on anyone.  There are some proposals out there that suggest paying rent simply be suspended for a certain duration of time. This proposal operates under the idea that property owners will be able to place their mortgage loans into forbearance for that same duration of time.  Meanwhile, interest and fees stack up for them.  With no money coming into pay such fees, they just keep growing.  Forbearance is expensive even if you can get one!  If you can't get one, you run the risk of falling behind on the mortgage.  If things don't clear up soon enough, you lose the property.  That's a way down the pipeline, and hopefully, it doesn't go that far, but it could.  If the home is foreclosed upon, the tenant's world also gets turned upside down.

Additionally, if there's no rent, management companies won't get paid, and will no longer be able to pay their staff.  What about repairs?  I have paid for three different (small) repairs since the beginning of 2020, which is fine.  If no rent gets paid, there is no money to make repairs, so they'll probably be put off.  This is not good for living conditions. It's also not good for the small business owners and repair people that count on that income.

At the same time, you can't expect people to pay rent with no money, right?  This is where individual states need to come up with solutions that stand a chance of helping the most people.  Individual states have the ability to direct the manner in which funding from the CARES Act gets used in their state to a certain extent.  I've read about proposals being made by various rental real estate organizations.  They are appealing to states to utilize CARES Act funds to issue rent vouchers to individuals that have been financially impacted by COVID-19.  These vouchers would prevent renters from ending up with a backlog of rent payments due at some later date.  It would also provide some much-needed relief to a renter's wallet.  Meanwhile, management companies keep operating, owner mortgages keep getting paid, and repair people keep servicing homes as needed.  Personally, I appreciated this proposal.

This is a huge problem, and I am very interested in hearing some of the proposals that are out there.  I just hope that they serve everyone.  While some landlords are huge corporations, others are just individual people like me...  People that have a regular job, one rental property, and a mortgage on that property that needs to get paid.  Our governors have a big job to do.  I do not envy them.  I just hope in the process they protect as many people's interests as possible.

What are your thoughts?  How could individual states protect renters, property owners, and the incomes of those contractors involved in rental real estate in the fairest way possible?