Martha Galvez and Corianne Payton Scally are principal research associates in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
America’s renters are rapidly approaching a cliff. The federal eviction protections put in place in response to massive pandemic-related job losses are set to expire at the end of August and some state and local protections are already expiring, with eviction proceedings resuming in several states. In addition, the temporary CARES Act boost to unemployment insurance benefits ends by July 31 even though millions of people are still out of work and struggling to pay rent.
The United States is heading rapidly toward an eviction crisis. More federal funding — coupled with state and local policy action — are needed to ensure renters can keep their homes in the months ahead.
An eviction crisis isn’t new for the United States. Even before the pandemic, there wasn’t a single county in the nation that had enough affordable housing to meet the needs of households living close to the poverty line. Landlords were filing more than two million eviction notices each year. Renters of color were already more likely than white renters to have high rent burdens, to be threatened with eviction and to experience homelessness. And now they are more likely to experience housing hardships due to Covid-19. The existing rental assistance safety net — a web of programs provided at the state and local levels with a mix of public and philanthropic funds — is not equipped to support a massive influx of families in crisis because of Covid-19.
Congress acted quickly at the start of the pandemic, but the CARES Act was designed for a short-term crisis. It did not provide funding that matches the scale of need. Nor did it create long-term housing counseling resources to help renters and landlords avoid evictions when payments are missed.
With time running out, a cash infusion from the federal government for direct housing assistance is urgently needed to help low- and moderate-income renters. Federal action could include expanded access to Housing Choice Vouchers — which are currently funded to support only about one in five households eligible for them — to help renters pay landlords and keep their rent amounts manageable. Or it could include expanded funding for local rental assistance programs through Emergency Solutions Grants to help renters pay back rent and stay solvent. Renters are disproportionately in industries hit hard by job loss, and extended unemployment benefits could help them stay afloat.
Whatever the mechanism, the level of funding should match the scale of need. An Urban Institute estimate suggests that, based on current unemployment levels, up to $16 billion per month is needed to make sure all renters have reasonable rent burdens (spending less than 30% of their income on rent) once the extended unemployment insurance benefits end. The HEROES Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives but has stalled in the Senate, includes over $100 billion for direct rental assistance, and estimates suggest at least as much will be needed to make housing vouchers available to all who qualify.
States and cities can also act now to strengthen housing protections and create alternatives to eviction before the crisis worsens. Policy steps that state and local governments should take include:
- Extending state and local eviction moratoria to delay the crisis and avoid confusion in the courts as states and cities stand up new policies, laws and emergency assistance models. The federal moratorium covers only certain federally subsidized properties, and local moratoria are vital to protecting renters in other properties.
- Keeping housing and utilities costs down. Several states and cities have passed legislation to minimize housing-related costs. California has suspended utilities shut-offs. Austin, Texas reduced residential water and electricity rates. And Montgomery County, Maryland capped rent increases.
- Requiring or incentivizing negotiated repayment plans with landlords, as Washington DC recently did, which could take the place of eviction battles progressing through courts.
- Expanding housing counseling for renters, similar to the homeowner counseling innovations that launched in 2008 during the foreclosure crisis.
- Increasing renters’ access to legal services, including a right to legal counsel, as New York City did even before the pandemic began.
Eviction risks are rising and, as the pandemic wears on and temporary supports end, this crisis calls for swift and decisive action at the federal, state and local levels to help America’s renters survive with their homes and credit intact.