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In the Age of COVID-19, Why Are Lawmakers Stalling on Rent Relief?

Jul 07, 2020 by Maurie Backman

The affordable housing crisis existed well before COVID-19, but during the pandemic things are coming to a head. It's estimated that right now up to 28 million American renters may be teetering on the verge of eviction, and lawmakers clearly aren't doing enough to help.

Temporary help won't cut it

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, an estimated 20.5 million families were struggling to come up with monthly rent. In 2016, four eviction notices were filed every minute. Let that sink in. And that's when the national jobless rate was 4.7%. Right now, unemployment is at 11.1%, and that's actually an improvement from April, when the jobless rate reached an all-time high of 14.7%.

Meanwhile, a good 50 million renters live in households that have experienced job or income loss during the pandemic. And the only help that's on the table is extremely temporary in nature.

Right now, the only thing saving struggling renters from eviction is the temporary moratorium many states have in place due to the ongoing crisis. But notice the word "temporary." At some point in the near future, those moratoriums will run out, and once that happens, renters will generally have two choices: make good on their unpaid rent or move out.

The problem with putting a moratorium on evictions and calling it a day is that renters will still be on the hook for unpaid rent once that moratorium is lifted. Now, imagine a renter whose income was cut during the pandemic and who can't come up with the $1,200 a month his apartment normally costs. To assume that same person will magically come up with $1,200 a month times three, four, five, or six months is downright laughable. Yet that's the conundrum millions of renters are facing today, and if relief isn't made available, things aren't likely to end well.

Landlords are getting hurt, too

There's been a lot of landlord criticism floating around since the COVID-19 crisis took hold -- namely, that landlords should be letting tenants who have experienced job loss off the hook. But let's not forget that not all landlords are commercial investors with deep pockets and robust portfolios. Many, in fact, are everyday people who rely on a single home or small building to make a living. These mom-and-pop landlords are said to have owned nearly half of all rental units nationwide back in 2015, and many, like the renters they serve, are just a missed paycheck or two away from financial insolvency. Therefore, while it's easy to say landlords should be doing better, the reality is that many landlords are struggling during the pandemic, too, and need assistance. So why aren't lawmakers providing any?

Where rent relief stands today

The HEROES Act, which was introduced by Democrats in May and has already survived a House of Representatives vote, calls for a $100 billion emergency rental assistance program. Under that proposal, at least 40% of approved funding would be used to help individuals at risk of homelessness based on income. The bill also includes $1 billion in funds for emergency housing vouchers for people who are currently homeless, at risk of becoming homeless, or attempting to escape a domestic violence situation.

There's just one problem with the HEROES Act: It's stalled in the Senate, going nowhere. Republicans have already made it clear that they're displeased with its $3 trillion cost, and since they control the Senate, it's extremely unlikely to pass.

Thankfully, some relief does exist at the state level. New Jersey, for example, just introduced a $100 million rental assistance program. Maine has a comparable program in place.

But these are just Band-Aid-style, local solutions that fail to address the really big picture: Americans across the nation are desperate for rent relief right now, and letting them off the hook on payments for a month or two won't cut it. Moratoriums on evictions in the absence of additional relief are hurting landlords, and they're ultimately not solving the problem.

In June, President Trump declared that he expects a second COVID-19 relief package to pass that will be generous in nature. Whether it makes a dent in the current rent crisis is yet to be determined.

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