In the last month, the already daunting shortage of affordable, accessible housing in the United States has evolved into an outright emergency. The coronavirus outbreak has caused unprecedented unemployment and put millions of people at risk of being unable to pay for housing and other basic needs. Governments are scrambling to respond with programs that house people experiencing homelessness and help others stay in their homes. And advocates are building pressure for longer-term solutions to a crisis that was in progress well before the first COVID-19 patient was identified in the U.S. Here’s what you should know right now.
What has the federal government done so far to help tenants and homeowners?
Late in March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion package of relief measures for businesses, state and local governments, and individuals. Included in the package was a 60-day moratorium on foreclosures on homes with federally backed mortgage loans — mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or another federal agency. The law also allows multifamily property owners with federally backed mortgages to request forbearance for up to 90 days due to financial hardship. Forbearance is a delay of mortgage payments with no accrual of interest or fees. Landlords who receive forbearance under the CARES Act would be barred from serving eviction notices to tenants during the period of forbearance. The law also prohibits all landlords with federally backed mortgages from evicting renters until at least July 25.
What does that mean for tenants and homeowners who are struggling to pay?
Homeowners with federally backed loans should expect to see no foreclosure notices until at least the middle of May, under the terms of the CARES Act. And, as Oscar Perry Abello previously reported for Next City, homeowners can expect some additional flexibility from lenders besides.
Tenants who live in apartment buildings with federally backed mortgages should also expect not to be evicted during the emergency, though as we noted Friday, landlords are not necessarily following the rules.
That said, the Urban Institute estimates that the CARES Act prohibitions on evictions cover around 12.3 million federally backed rental units, or a quarter of all rental units in the United States. But as others have noted, most tenants don’t know much about who issued their landlord’s mortgage. One place to start is this spreadsheet of federally backed multifamily apartment buildings, created by Seattle Times reporter Katherine Khashimova Long, which pulls data from Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. If your building is on the list, you should expect to be protected. Regional Housing Legal Services (RHLS), a Pennsylvania nonprofit law firm, has created additional resources to help tenants find out whether their homes are covered under the CARES Act.
What if your landlord doesn’t have a federally backed mortgage?
As the Urban Institute notes, around a quarter of the nation’s 43.8 million rental units are in buildings with federally backed mortgages, and thus covered by the CARES Act’s eviction protections. Additional properties subsidized with Low Income Housing Tax Credits or other federal backing are covered as well. But what if you live in a building that isn’t covered by the CARES Act? You may still be temporarily protected from eviction under state or local laws. The San Francisco-based Anti-Eviction Mapping Project collective has created a map showing which states have passed laws protecting tenants from evictions because of coronavirus-related income losses. RHLS has its own map of eviction moratoria as well. If your state isn’t covered, you can contact your local representatives to find out if your city or county has enacted any additional protections.
What if you’re temporarily protected from eviction, but can’t afford your rent?
Even if you’re temporarily protected from eviction, you’re still legally supposed to pay your rent. If you don’t, under the current rules, your landlord could try to evict you as soon as the emergency is over. So what should you do if you can’t pay? This is where things get complicated — and where the answers are likely to be different based on personal circumstances.
In most cases, says Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, the best strategy is to contact your landlord, let them know that you’ve lost income, tell them you can’t pay, and try to work out a deal. Tenants Together, a California tenant advocacy group, created a sample letter to the landlord that can be adapted by tenants in different conditions.
“Obviously this depends on what your landlord is like,” Roller says. “But your life is just going to be easier if you know what you can expect.”
The website VICE has also produced a “step-by-step guide for dealing with your landlord during the worst economic catastrophe in living memory,” with some advice on strategies, including putting any agreement in writing and making sure you know what rights tenants have normally and during the emergency in your city. As VICE notes, tenants have leverage in the current crisis, because landlords are likely to want to keep tenants rather than trying to find new ones. There are other types of leverage too, Roller says. Even under eviction moratoriums and other protections, some landlords are acting criminally — locking tenants out or shutting off utilities, he says. But because the coronavirus outbreak and housing insecurity are at the top of so many minds, tenants have a better chance than normal to expose those abuses.
“If you have a landlord that’s behaving really poorly right now, one of the first things you should do is get on the phone and call your local news [outlet],” Roller says.
The Los Angeles Tenants Union has started a campaign and how-to guide called #FoodNotRent meant to help tenants protect themselves as much as possible if they are withholding rent to pay for other basic needs. (A number of relief funds have also been created for special purposes around the country.) Decisions about what expenses to prioritize will come down to personal circumstances, says Kate Walz, vice president of advocacy at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.
“It still may be the best route to try to pay some money towards [rent], but tenants have to really look at their own budget and their own needs and be in communication with landlords,” Walz says. “And we have to keep pushing for them to be recipients of the federal stimulus — beyond the [initial] stimulus checks.”
Is rental assistance coming?
Some cities have already begun to use some of the existing federal stimulus to create emergency rental assistance programs. But given the depth of the economic damage caused by social distancing under the pandemic, most people expect there to be further rounds of federal stimulus and relief packages. And a number of elected officials are pushing for $100 billion in emergency rental assistance to be included in the next package. That number is based on the estimated need to keep people housed during the crisis, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Roller says the National Housing Law Project and other advocates are also pushing for the federal government to pass an across-the-board eviction moratorium that would apply to all rental units, regardless of what mortgages they’re under.
“This is a problem that can only really be solved at the federal level,” Roller says. “On the money side, states are losing money quickly, and they can’t borrow money like the federal government can. We recognize that businesses can’t survive without help from the federal government and landlords can’t survive without help from the federal government, so anybody who thinks that renters can continue to pay their rent like they did before — that just seems like a ridiculous assumption to me.”
Even if the government does approve emergency rental assistance, details will need to be worked out about who applies for the assistance and whether it will go directly to landlords or arrive as general cash assistance for tenants, says Walz. Other safety net programs — Medicaid, SNAP, TANF — need to be expanded as well, she says. And longer term, governments will need to address the housing challenges that were in place before the pandemic began.
“There has to be a realization that ‘normal’ was never great, and it didn’t work for most people in the society, and especially black and brown communities and undocumented communities,” Walz says.
As tenants, homeowners, and landlords wait for more relief, many tenant advocates have begun organizing around the general idea of a rent strike or rent cancellation. San Jose officials tried to pass a rent suspension for people who have lost income because of the pandemic, but were quickly rebuffed by their own legal department, which said the law would open the city up to lawsuits from landlords. Roller says he hasn’t fully analyzed the legal issues involved in the #RentStrike and #CancelRent campaigns, but says that they’ve been powerful organizing tools.
“This is a very political moment,” Roller says. “How we’re going to deal with these problems is not just a legal issue. It’s very much a political issue.”
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.