Home » Renters are desperate for more help (opinion)
Losing a home is devastating even during normal times. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it becomes a public health catastrophe. Americans who lose their homes during the crisis will be unable to properly quarantine, becoming a public safety risk. The displaced will be more likely to become sick, thereby straining medical resources. They will put pressure on shelter systems, which are already overcrowded and increasingly understaffed as shelter workers begin to contract the virus.
Thankfully, the government’s $2.2 trillion stimulus package included the possibility of forbearance on federally backed mortgages and placed a nationwide moratorium on foreclosures for homes backed by federal agencies. That’s a broad swath of mortgages, covering between 80% and 90% of homeowners.
In an unprecedented move, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has passed these protections on to renters by mandating that any homeowners who request mortgage forbearance also commit to not evicting their tenants. And the federal government’s stimulus package has included several measures to help renters, as well.
Some states are also launching rental assistance funds, and dozens of states, counties and cities have placed moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures.
But that still won’t be enough.
The federal government lacks a long-term plan for rental assistance. That means even with a moratorium on evictions, many renters will be saddled with debt once the crisis is over.
And, while the eviction and foreclosure moratoriums passed by the federal, state and local governments are a critical step, they create a confusing patchwork that leaves residents unsure of whether they are covered. A nationwide moratorium on foreclosures would be more straightforward.
Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, with 40% unable to afford a surprise expense of $400. The median monthly rent and utilities amount to more than $1,000, and median monthly housing costs for a homeowner with a mortgage are over $1,500. This means many Americans would no longer be able to pay for their homes within a month of losing their jobs.
In the long term, it’s critical that America broadens its housing safety nets, particularly for renters. That means more time to catch up on missed payments, and a longer timeline for evictions. It means a right to counsel for tenants in eviction proceedings. And, it means the right to withhold rent when housing isn’t habitable, without fear of eviction.
Importantly, tenants have to know that these protections exist. Some cities, including Washington DC, have adopted a Tenants Bill of Rights that spells out the protections tenants are entitled to. This effort should go national.
We must also expand our affordable housing stock. In a post-COVID economy, building more affordable housing will have the added advantage of creating jobs.
The silver lining of this crisis is that it’s laying bare the fissures in American society and is providing a wealth of teachable moments. Let’s be sure these insights extend to a fundamental human right that millions of Americans may lose in the coming weeks and months: the right to a safe and stable home.