Low-Income Renters Were on the Edge in “Good Times” – The Pandemic Will Push Millions Over the Edge If Congress Does Not Act
Last year, when the unemployment rate was 3.7 percent, nearly half of renter households earning less than $35,000 a year were spending more than half their income on rent. Now, unemployment is close to 9 percent. This August, more than half of people in households with incomes less than $35,000 reported they had lost income since March 13. More than one in four (27 percent; close to 10 million people in households) said in July that they had not paid their last month’s rent. The CDC ordered a moratorium on evictions through December 31, recognizing that evictions would be imminent because so many were falling behind in rent. Widespread evictions were seen as a public health hazard because of COVID-19 – people forced to double up in housing or crammed into shelters would worsen the spread of the disease.
With rent swallowing up so much of income, even in “good times,” it is clear that Congress must act to protect people from eviction by providing assistance so tenants can pay their back rent. Even for those who go back to work at no reduction in income, if they have only one month’s back rent to pay, that plus the current rent will take every cent of their earnings. Many will owe much more than one month of back rent, and many are going back to work at reduced hours, if they do not join the ranks of long-term jobless.
The rent problem is so huge that the $100 billion in emergency rental assistance already enacted by the House is urgently needed. Other forms of income assistance would also help, including reviving the $600/week in unemployment benefits allowed to expire in July, and providing another round of stimulus payments, such as the $1,200 per adult payment made earlier this year (this time, Congress should ensure that families of mixed immigrant status can receive this help).
Right now, the House has shown a willingness to negotiate by dropping its total for aid in a new package by more than $1 trillion. The Senate instead actually reduced the amount it initially floated. Continued inaction is unthinkable, knowing what we know about how many low-income renters are poised on the edge of eviction. If Majority Leader McConnell remains intransigent, Congress will leave and it is highly likely that no help will reach millions of vulnerable people until January. By that time, the moratorium on evictions will have ended and most who have piled up arrearages will have no way to pay.