Many families are suffering a Covid-related loss of income but so are many of the people who provide them with their homes. In this Covid era, the cost of providing housing has increased while rental income has declined due to the inability of many tenants to pay their rent.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “mom and pop” landlords own more than half of all rental units nationwide (22.7 million out of 45.8 million). Here in Chicago, where small two- to six-flats and courtyard buildings make up so much of the fabric of Chicago’s neighborhoods that percentage is much higher.

These small neighborhood housing providers depend on income derived from rent to maintain the buildings, cover their utility and waste removal costs, and pay their mortgages and property taxes. They simply do not have the financial ability to survive a significant interruption in rental income. Without rent, they would have no choice but to defer maintenance on the buildings and fall behind on tax and mortgage payments.

A likely scenario is the housing provider will lose the building to out-of-town banks and mortgage lending companies who have no ties to Chicago’s neighborhoods. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported recently that many large out-of-state institutional investors are “preparing for what they believe could be a once-in-a generation opportunity to buy distressed real-estate assets at bargain prices.”

Housing providers understand the hardship involved in paying rent as jobs and unemployment benefits dry up, and the pain of evictions. But the burden for shouldering the cost of missed rent payments cannot fall entirely on the small and mid-sized housing providers without dire consequences for the stability of Chicago’s housing market.

We don’t ask grocery stores to provide free food, or pharmacies to provide free diapers, so how can we ask neighborhood housing providers to provide free housing? We must find a way to keep Chicago’s network of small family-owned two to six-flats flats and courtyard buildings from going under. Losing those apartment buildings to foreclosure would be especially harmful to Chicago’s economically challenged west and south side neighborhoods that are already fighting disinvestment.

Chicago’s neighborhood housing providers are part of the community: they hire and buy locally, and they know their tenants personally. Those personal relationships result in more flexible arrangements for struggling tenants—flexibility which likely would disappear if local housing providers lose their buildings to foreclosure and bankruptcy.

Rental assistance programs, like the one recently created by Governor Pritzker and the Illinois General Assembly, are a good first step, but do not begin to address the magnitude of the problem. The federal government must step in and do its share to increase relief for struggling renters and housing providers. Only then can we truly stabilize our fragile housing industry and= keep people in their homes.

Michael Glasser is president of the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance (NBOA), an organization of over 600 community-based housing providers that advocates on behalf of neighborhood building owners associations.