Congress May Offer More Housing Relief. Will It Be Enough to Avert Disaster for Cities? – Next City
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Congress May Offer More Housing Relief. Will It Be Enough to Avert Disaster for Cities?

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Before the pandemic, Lowell Hickman was working as an officer manager for a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., and when the shutdowns came, like so many others, he lost his job. His last day of work was March 30.

Three months have passed since then, but he still hasn’t been able to collect unemployment. Meanwhile, Hickman, also an organizer with the DC Tenants Union, has been paying his rent directly to a court, because he’s suing his landlord over mold, leaks, and a range of other issues at his apartment building in Northeast D.C. With no income, though, he can’t afford to keep paying.

The tenants union has been trying to push the D.C. Council to cancel rent payments and fees for tenants who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. But like the #CancelRent movement in so many other cities, it hasn’t gotten much traction with local leaders. At this point, Hickman says, he’s crossing his fingers that Congress will pass a law that was recently sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, which would extend the federal moratorium on evictions until March 27, 2021, and expand it to cover most renters.

“At this point, the federal government is the best hope,” Hickman says. “The D.C. Council is not seemingly trying to pass anything that’s giving tenants a reprieve.”

Warren’s bill, called the Protecting Renters from Evictions and Fees Act, is just one aspect of a larger series of relief measures that Congressional Democrats are hoping to adopt as part of the next economic stimulus package. Already, the House of Representatives has passed the HEROES Act, which incorporates a range of housing-relief measures on housing advocates’ priority list, including $100 billion for emergency rental assistance. Last week, the House also spun out the housing components of that bill and approved them separately, in an attempt to ramp up pressure on the Republican-controlled Senate to act. Warren’s bill is meant to put pressure on the Senate leadership as well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been delaying negotiations on further stimulus, but has recently begun to indicate that Congress would take the matter up after its July 4 recess.

As of last week, says Diane Yentel, the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 27 states have allowed their eviction moratoria to expire. The expected onslaught of evictions has been compared to everything from a flood to a tsunami to an avalanche, and Yentel says Congress is “running out of time” to do something to minimize the damage. The House initially passed the HEROES Act in mid-May, and Yentel says that McConnell is delaying talks over the next stimulus package as long as possible in order to increase Republicans’ leverage in determining what makes it into the law. The House’s votes now may not create new laws, but they help set the table for negotiations.

“Now we know that Nancy Pelosi and the House recognize the urgency of action, and so they’ve passed essential protections to keep people housed during and after the pandemic not once but twice,” Yentel says. “And I think the second vote was an effort to underscore the urgency and increase the pressure on the Senate to act.”

Without more federal relief, in the form of unemployment insurance as well as rental assistance, tenants like Hickman, and cities like Washington, D.C., will be in deep trouble. Cities have used some CARES Act funding to create small rental assistance programs, but they have mostly been overrun by tenant applicants immediately. In Philadelphia, 13,000 families applied for rental assistance during a brief window in June, but the program maxed out at 4,000 applicants. The city is now running a second round of local rental assistance, hoping to help some 6,300 additional tenants. Pennsylvania is also launching its own $150 million rental assistance program, as the Inquirer reported, but advocates say evictions may begin before the money can be distributed. And longer-term, states and cities may have a much harder time running safety-net programs given the budget shortfalls they’re currently facing.

The CARES Act stimulus was important because it pumped about a trillion dollars into an economy that had otherwise almost completely shut down, says Mike Konczal, the director of progressive thought at the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute. If the federal government pulls back on unemployment insurance and other economic stimulus at the same time as eviction moratoria are expiring, the effects could be catastrophic, Konczal says.

“Many people are suffering and it is quite bad out there for many people in our society,” Konczal says. “But the trillion-dollar stimulus has helped put a floor on how bad it has gotten.”

Helping people avoid eviction and homelessness is an important basic social goal, Konczal says, and it’s also a critical aspect of protecting the economy. And unlike the Great Recession that began in 2008, the issues in this case aren’t complicated by things like credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities, Konczal says.

“This is pretty straightforward and simple: People don’t have money because the economy has stopped,” Konczal says. “The moment you slam the brakes on [an economic stimulus], it has huge cascading problems.”

Housing advocates are trying to keep pressure on Republicans in the Senate to address housing issues in the next stimulus. Some Senate Republicans are privately acknowledging the need for rental assistance and eviction-prevention measures, even if they’re not talking about it publicly, says Diane Yentel. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has identified four priorities for the next relief package: $11.5 billion in Emergency Services grants to help manage coronavirus outbreaks among homeless communities, a one-year eviction moratorium like the one that Senator Warren has sponsored, $100 billion for emergency rental assistance, and $13 billion to help public housing authorities manage properties safely and expand access to Housing Choice Vouchers. Yentel says she believes Congress will pass another relief package, but doesn’t know whether it will be enough.

“There are big consequential deadlines coming in the next three weeks, and then Congress is out on recess for a month, and then we are in the thick of reelection season when it’s very difficult to get anything done,” Yentel says. “The clock is ticking and the window is closing to get anything done on housing.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our twice-weekly Backyard newsletter.

Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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