Congress Must Act Now To Keep Renters in Their Homes During and After the Coronavirus Crisis

A woman stands in her bedroom while self-quarantining in a Long Island rental house with her family, March 2020.

On March 26, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance in just one week. A week later, that figure jumped to a staggering 6.6 million. In the coming weeks, the jobless rate is expected to continue to increase, as more workers face unemployment—both those employed by firms and businesses forced to close and those who are self-employed and work as independent contractors. In addition, these published figures on unemployment insurance claims are likely to understate the magnitude of the problem, as they do not account for part-time and low-wage workers, freelancers, and self-employed gig workers, because these individuals do not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Renters, in particular, will be disproportionately affected by the sudden economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Since these individuals are more likely than homeowners to be low-wage workers and live in low-income households, many of them will lack the financial resources necessary to overcome missed paychecks. And on top of having lower incomes than homeowners, renters cannot take advantage of the equity in their homes as a form of safety net, thereby making them more vulnerable to financial crises.

Due to a severe shortage of affordable housing, a large share of renters were already struggling before the onset of the pandemic. Many renters, especially those with low incomes, spend a disproportionately large share of their household income on rent, utilities, and transportation. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies, in 2018, there were nearly 44 million renter households in the United States, 47 percent of which spent at least 30 percent of their household income on housing costs, including utilities; and this is despite the fact that 60 percent of all renters, about 26 million, were fully employed at that time. Spending such a large portion of household income on housing and transportation costs is likely to translate into limited or no savings to be used for rainy days.

As the pandemic endures, many renters who have not already lost their jobs are likely to join the throngs of unemployed individuals in the next few months, with potentially devastating consequences regarding their ability to keep their homes.

The need for a strong national response

The Trump administration recently announced that it would temporarily suspend evictions and foreclosures on federally backed mortgages. Furthermore, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion stimulus package signed into law on March 27 to combat the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, provides $12 billion in federal housing and rental assistance. The bill, which includes various provisions for rental assistance, public housing, Community Development Block Grant funding for state and local governments, and housing assistance for people with special needs, also places a temporary moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for renters living in federally subsidized housing and for homeowners with federally backed mortgages—that is, those with mortgage loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration and with loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

These measures, however, target just one segment of the housing market and neglect the vast majority of renters across the nation, many of whom have already lost their jobs due to the sudden economic slowdown and are at risk of eviction and homelessness if they miss one or more monthly rental payments. In addition, the one-time $1,200 stimulus check for individuals and $2,400 stimulus check for married couples will not be enough to meet housing costs and other basic expenses, especially in high-cost areas.

States and local governments across the nation have been passing emergency legislation to assist residents and businesses facing unprecedented financial losses due to the outbreak of COVID-19. In California, for example, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed an executive order giving local governments the authority to impose a two-month moratorium on residential evictions for tenants who cannot pay their monthly rent due to the coronavirus outbreak. In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) ordered a moratorium on evictions and waivers of late fees. Several municipalities, including New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Orlando, and Miami, have also taken the initiative to ban evictions during the outbreak. In addition, some landlords across the nation have taken further measures to assist struggling tenants by providing rent discounts and extensions, flexible deadlines, and the conversion of security deposits into rent payments.

Yet this may not be enough. The relief provided by the CARES Act and the countless initiatives undertaken by states and local governments only begin to address the needs of the millions of renters facing housing insecurity due to the pandemic. States, local governments, and individual property owners cannot sustain this burden alone and be expected to face such an unprecedented crisis with their own limited resources. The federal government cannot wait any longer to ensure that millions of renter households are able to keep their homes when illness and quarantine measures—job closures, reductions in work hours, and stay-at-home orders—are leading to abrupt losses of income. At the same time, it is important to have a plan for the several months immediately following the end of the state of emergency, when families and individuals will likely be asked to resume the compounding payments for housing and utilities. This is particularly critical for those who are most vulnerable to economic shocks: low-income communities that have already been experiencing significant burdens in terms of housing costs.

Broad actions are needed to better protect tenants from losing their homes. Specifically, in addition to the critical measures recommended by the Center for American Progress to assist homeless individuals and families, lawmakers should take the following threefold approach:

1. Provide immediate relief

The federal government needs to take the following actions immediately to ensure that people can remain in their homes during the pandemic.

  • Announce a national blanket moratorium on evictions for all tenants affected by COVID-19 for the duration of the pandemic. This moratorium should be extended not only to those who fail to pay their rent but also to those who are evicted for other causes that are not legitimate, such as retaliation for nonpayment or for contracting the virus, among other reasons. Robust tenant protections, as well as streamlined legal procedures and information, should accompany the moratorium in order to address any legal loopholes threatening struggling renters.
  • Issue emergency housing grants to local housing authorities to provide direct rental payment assistance, in the form of housing vouchers, to all struggling renters.
  • Establish an emergency fund to compensate small landlords undergoing lost income due to the loss of rent revenue, particularly in low-income areas. Alternatively, an emergency lending facility could be established to assist small landlords with no-fee loans at low interest rates, similar to the loans provided by the Small Business Administration to small businesses. Such loans should be accompanied with affordable and flexible repayment plans and even with a bonus forgiveness option to incentivize landlords to quickly assist struggling tenants during the pandemic.
  • Mandate a blanket suspension of utilities and broadband shutoffs nationwide. Some utility providers are already following these guidelines. This is of vital importance at a time when millions of people are ordered to stay home and the consumption of utilities is likely to increase. Tenants should also be able to continue being connected to the world outside their homes via the internet. Having access to the internet is not only critical for being informed on the latest developments of the pandemic and for staying in touch with family and friends; it is also vital for health care purposes, for jobs in which telework is an option, and for schoolwork. As such, broadband capacity should be boosted, particularly in underserved communities.

2. Include a strong medium-term response

Renters, property owners, and the government will all face questions regarding the overhang of suspended payments, and many renters will need assistance in the months immediately following the pandemic. Apartment associations across the nation are already asking housing providers to commit to some of the following initiatives.

  • Give tenants who miss rental and utility payments during the pandemic prolonged time to pay. This could be done through flexible payment plans and the waiver of late fees.
  • Encourage rent forgiveness, especially in low-income areas. This could be done by providing landlords with incentives.
  • Prohibit rent increases for the next year, or make sure that any rent increases are minimal, reflecting the rate of inflation.
  • Urge housing providers not to report any missed or late payments to credit agencies in order to protect consumers, whose credit may suffer due to the loss of income and missed payments.
  • Enforce just-cause eviction laws.
  • Continue providing housing vouchers to struggling tenants for at least the six to 12 months following the pandemic—or for as long as needed.

3. Prepare for the future through long-term planning

The nation needs to prepare for an eventual economic recovery. It is crucial that lawmakers revisit housing policies, particularly those related to the rental market. If the recession stemming from the pandemic is prolonged, the housing market will suffer. Usually, during a recession, home prices and rents decline. This can be a considerable challenge for low-income families, however, as rents may not drop at the same pace as their incomes. Much like during the Great Recession, low-income communities and segregated communities of color are likely to be disproportionately affected by the current pandemic and related economic collapse; it may take years for them to rebound.

For this reason, it is important to ensure that stable and affordable housing is a solid pillar of economic recovery for all communities, especially those most likely to be hardest hit by the pandemic. The federal government has the responsibility to guarantee that everybody has access to safe and affordable housing, and the current crisis can teach important lessons for the future. The following recommendations can serve as a starting point.

  • Re-envision the housing stock. The existing housing stock is inadequate for the large share of renters who live in overcrowded conditions, including multigenerational households and renters forced to move in with family and friends because of sudden losses of income. States across the nation are issuing stay-at-home orders, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that people showing symptoms of COVID-19 self-isolate. However, it is very challenging for families living in overcrowded housing conditions to abide by such mandates and guidelines over a prolonged period.
  • Address the shortage of affordable housing. Housing affordability in the rental market is a crucial determinant of whether families are able to achieve economic stability. It is crucial to expand funding for federal rental assistance and investment in the national Housing Trust Fund. Moreover, as recommended in CAP’s “Homes for All” report, now is the time for the federal government to aggressively step in and become a key direct contributor to the affordable housing stock for working families across the income spectrum—as it did during the Great Depression.
  • Promote inclusive housing and economic opportunities by dismantling residential segregation and fighting discrimination in the housing market. Lawmakers do not need to reinvent the wheel, as some tools, such as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, are available and should be immediately reinstated.

Conclusion

On April 1, more than $43 billion was due in rent nationwide.* Yet, as millions of workers have lost their jobs, many are not able to pay their rent and utilities; and even more are likely to join them in the coming months as the virus continues to spread across the nation. Congress must act immediately to ensure that all renters, including those with low incomes, can keep their homes during the pandemic as well as in the months following this public health crisis. Doing so will help to provide a vital pillar for a swift economic recovery.

Michela Zonta is a senior policy analyst for Housing and Consumer Finance Policy at the Center for American Progress.

*Author’s note: This estimate is based on both the amount that renters spent in 2019 and the fact that rents have been rising steadily and much faster than inflation.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.