Housing has increasingly become one of the most unequal parts of the economic recovery.
At the top there is a nationwide housing boom, fueled by a run-up in home prices as higher-income households rush to take advantage of record-low mortgages. But at the same time, millions of renters, especially people who have missed rent payments or whose jobs haven’t come back, are at risk of losing their homes before the end of the summer.
The looming eviction crisis has added urgency — in Washington and across the country — to ensuring emergency rental aid reaches the most vulnerable Americans before it is too late.
The Biden administration, housing advocates, renters and landlords alike are focused on July 31, when the final eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will expire. Racing against the deadline, the White House is pushing state and local governments and courts to do all they can to prevent evictions. On Wednesday, the White House convened a meeting of representatives from 50 cities to discuss their plans for staving off an eviction crisis.
Yet some housing experts are concerned that the latest sprint may be coming too late. Congress has allocated tens of billions of dollars for emergency rental aid. But much of that money hasn’t reached the people who need it most. Local governments have struggled to prop up programs to quickly get the money out.
Now, the White House is rushing to organize courts, states and localities, legal-aid organizations and housing groups to help keep families in homes, because at this point the White House’s toolbox for tenants is pretty limited.
“It’s fundamentally the responsibility of state and local governments to get relief in the hands of renters and landlords,” Susan Rice, director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, said at Wednesday’s meeting.
Q: What has the Biden administration done to respond to the eviction crisis?
A: Last week, the White House and Treasury Department announced initiatives to speed the disbursal of rental relief and streamline application processes.
Still, the administration knows that an eviction crisis can be avoided only with cooperation from local authorities and courts and is calling for an “all-hands-on-deck effort.” At Wednesday’s White House meeting, Gene Sperling, who is overseeing the rollout of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, said the administration is asking “everyone to respond with speed and force, because there is no alternative.”
“While we have substantial funds through the American Rescue Plan, we as a nation have never had a national infrastructure to prevent unnecessary evictions,” Sperling said.
The Biden administration also announced last week that three federal agencies that back mortgages — the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Agriculture Department — will extend their foreclosure moratoriums until July 31. The Federal Housing Finance Agency is also extending a moratorium on foreclosures of mortgages backed by the government for another month.
Housing is also central to the Biden administration’s efforts to address racial inequity, which include boosting Black homeownership and increasing rental housing in neighborhoods with more educational and economic opportunities. While the coronavirus exacerbated racial and economic gaps, the administration says it does not want equal access to housing to be held back by the pandemic.
Q: Why hasn’t more emergency rental aid gone out?
A: Congress allocated roughly $46 billion for emergency rental assistance through pandemic aid packages. But state and local governments have struggled to launch programs that can get the money out. Even though the CDC’s moratorium now lasts until July 31, many are concerned that the one-month extension will be just a blip in time.
In some cases, renters and landlords struggle with complicated application requirements, especially if they lack internet access. For months, housing organizations have been inundated with desperate calls from renters fearing they’ll soon be evicted and from landlords frustrated that they cannot pay their bills, for lack of rental income. Often, getting an application for federal funding approved depends on cooperation from a landlord and a tenant. But many of those relationships have come under strain.
Q: What needs to happen to get emergency relief out?
A: Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, pointed to three factors that could significantly help “the lowest-income people at greatest risk of eviction”: Applications should be simple. Aid should go directly to tenants if landlords don’t participate in an application. Whenever possible, people should be able to look to “self-attestation,” meaning documents could be verified by applicants themselves.
“Programs that overburden themselves and applicants with bureaucracy slow the process for everyone and risk leaving out those tenants most vulnerable to eviction,” Yentel said.
Part of the goal of Wednesday’s meeting was to highlight ways the legal system can help prevent evictions, as well. States and localities will all handle eviction cases somewhat differently. But experts say that one of the best approaches is to intervene early, such as after a landlord has delivered a “notice” to a tenant but before an eviction case is filed in court. For example, landlords could be required to apply for rental assistance before they file an eviction in court. Courts could also slow-track eviction cases to give more time for rental relief to get out.
Money approved from Congress for emergency rental assistance can also be used to support eviction diversion programs, as opposed to going directly to landlords or tenants.
Q: What can renters or landlords do?
A: Application processes and requirements will vary across the country, as will the approaches eviction courts take to handling a rise in case loads.
Still, the Treasury Department published a list of state, local and tribal government emergency rental-assistance programs to help people find relief. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has also issued guidance for renters, landlords and homeowners.
Q: What is happening in the housing market?
A: When it comes to housing, the economic recovery has diverged along two tracks.
On one side is a housing boom. Home prices are soaring, with buyers clamoring in extremely competitive bidding wars that often hinge on all-cash offers. The cost of building materials, worker shortages and a lack of available houses are pushing prices up even higher. In April, annual home-price gains were at 14.6%, according to the S & P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index.
Yet on the opposite end of the recovery, many renters are still reeling from the coronavirus recession and remain behind on bills. Landlords are strapped for income. Housing advocates fear a wave of homelessness once the CDC’s moratorium lifts on July 31. In many pockets of the country, vulnerable residents are being priced out of their homes and cannot afford to stay.
Q: How did that happen?
A: The pandemic has shaped the housing market in many ways — some of which may become permanent.
Some people who stayed home for much of the past year began to rethink all sorts of decisions about where they live. In some cases, city dwellers who were working from home looked for more-spacious options elsewhere. Demand for new homes rebounded much faster than the supply could catch up.
Low interest rates and rising markets made it easier for wealthier Americans to scoop up expensive homes. And while officials at the Federal Reserve say they don’t see the kinds of risky lending practices that burst the last housing bubble, there are questions about whether the Fed’s moves to prop up the economy exacerbated, even indirectly, the surge in home prices.
Meanwhile, many workers who lost their jobs last year had their financial lives upended. The eviction moratorium is intended to keep people in their homes. But tenants who have fallen behind on rent will still have to pay their bills once they come due. Some economists wonder whether rising home prices will, in time, translate to higher rent prices, making housing that much more precarious for vulnerable tenants.