How will coronavirus affect renters?


March 27, 2020

Editor’s note: Voices for Human Needs is examining the effects of coronavirus on low-income and other vulnerable populations. This post is one in a continuing series.

Amanda Hiern is the latest victim of COVID-19 even though, as far as she knows, she has not contracted the virus.

The New Orleans bartender and server-turned-Uber-driver had counted on earning fares and tips during the city’s renowned St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, but the city cancelled the festivities. Amanda, who shared her story in a recent article in the Washington Post, already was behind in her rent because a recent illness left her unable to drive as many hours as she needed. And even though New Orleans has suspended evictions at least until April 24, Amanda’s landlord is threatening to evict her, even posting an eviction notice to her door.

“I’m a gig worker so how am I supposed to earn this money?” she asked. “I live day to day – not even pay check to pay check. All my income is dependent on events, tourism, and the bars and restaurants being open. This eviction notice is making me feel like I should go out and risk my life for money.”

Amanda is hardly alone. More than 40 million Americans rent, and housing advocates say many renters are in danger of eviction. Local and state jurisdictions throughout the country have suspended evictions, but it is far from clear how long the suspensions will last – some are for 30 days or less. Furthermore, the suspensions don’t really address the core, structural problem – once coronavirus recedes and the economy begins its arduous recovery, many renters will be so far behind in their rent payments that catching up will seem like an impossible dream.

The numbers already are bad, and economists say they are going to get a lot worse. This week, it was reported that 3.3 million Americans filed unemployment claims in one week – the most in U.S. history. Experts say millions more are expected to lose their jobs by the beginning of summer. Although many people living pay check to pay check may be able to make one last rent payment on April 1, there will be trouble soon after.

Maxwell Ciardullo, the Policy Director at the Fair Housing Action Center in New Orleans, told the Washington Post that eviction moratoriums are not enough because people like Amanda will not be able to catch up on back rent. “Moratoriums are only going to put this off for a month or two,” he said. “As soon as courts open up, we are going to see a tsunami of evictions.”

In the CARES Act, which is the third and latest round of coronavirus legislation, some – but certainly not all – renters will find relief. The legislation prevents eviction of renters who live in “covered housing programs,” including low-income housing tax credit buildings, rural housing vouchers, and other federal renter assistance. The Section 8 housing voucher program, which covers more than 2 million low-income families and is the U.S. government’s largest housing assistance program, is also covered, as are many renters who live in buildings with federally backed mortgages.

Still – that won’t help Amanda and tens of millions of renters like her who do not receive federal housing assistance, or live in buildings with federally backed mortgages. So what is the solution?

The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) leads the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, which has submitted recommendations to Congress to protect renters. These recommendations, many of which are included in a legislative proposal sponsored by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), include a national moratorium on evictions, rent and utility payment assistance for renters who do not currently receive assistance, and suspension of rental and utility payments for federally assisted renters.

“It’s important that there be a uniform policy that gives everyone in America an assurance that we won’t lose our home in the midst of a public health emergency,” Diane Yentel, NLIHC President, told the Washington Post.

Laurie Goodman, Co-Director of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute, told National Public Radio that renters are more vulnerable than homeowners, “because, on average, they’re just much, much less affluent, and have much less in savings.”

“It would be the hope that some sort of either rental assistance or per person assistance would become available to allow people to get through this difficult period,” she said.

That same National Public Radio story always quoted Harvard economist Ken Rogoff, who said the government needs to do everything it can to keep people financially healthy and on solid footing. That way, he says, when things return to normal, people can return to spending money and “slingshot” the economy into recovery.

“When things like this happen, you want to just spend with abandon,” he said. “You want to know that you can do whatever it takes to get out of this extraordinary situation, it could turn out to be a once-in-a-century situation.”