The Homeless Are More Vulnerable To COVID-19
In the midst of this pandemic, one group is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19: America’s homeless population. Those without a shelter or roof over their head are at increased risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus; stay-at-home orders are, quite clearly, unhelpful to those who are homeless. Right now, millions of Americans are trying to figure out how to pay rent with record unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression.
Although rent relief programs often hurt landlords, evictions lead to homelessness, which is particularly dangerous for both individuals and the public during this pandemic. Therefore, Congress must prioritize delaying evictions by maintaining unemployment benefits, extending the federal eviction moratorium, and providing mortgage relief for small landlords.
The Imminent Eviction Crisis
With the federal eviction moratorium set to expire on July 25, millions of renters are bracing for eviction. Unemployment benefits from the CARES Act will also expire at the end of July, leaving Americans with less financial support while the job market remains uncertain for the summer, as any resurgence of the virus may shut down local economies again. Tenants who are unable to pay July rent may lose their homes, if eviction moratoriums are not extended or implemented.
This eviction crisis would immediately transform into a public health crisis, as homelessness increases the risk of contracting and subsequently spreading COVID-19. When large numbers of evicted people are out on the streets, especially in densely populated cities like New York City, the lack of physical barriers would make it impossible for homeless individuals to self-quarantine should they contract COVID-19. They are then more likely to spread the virus, which is exacerbated by the fact that the homeless generally lack access to basic sanitation facilities for hand-washing. Thus, it is imperative that Congress acts before this wave of evictions hits.
Rent Assistance Has Been Effective So Far
Thus far, federal rent assistance, in the form of eviction moratoriums and general unemployment benefits, has proven to be effective in protecting renters. According to a nationwide survey conducted by the National Multifamily Housing Council, “[o]ver 92% of apartment households made either a full or partial rent payment by June 20.” This number stands higher than the 90.8% of renters who met the May 20 deadline, potentially indicating that federal assistance, coupled with gradual reopenings, is helping more and more Americans get back on their feet. To keep tenants safe in their homes, Congress must prioritize delaying evictions by extending the moratorium and supplying stimulus packages.
But What About Landlords?
At the same time, landlords are also worried about making mortgage payments. Small landlords especially rely on collecting rent to pay for certain expenses, such as property taxes and mortgages, which are still required in many places, including Philadelphia. As much as they may want to empathize with and help tenants out, landlords are not immune to economic hardship during this pandemic.
However, rent assistance and mortgage relief can happen simultaneously, which is a win-win situation for both renters and landlords. On June 29, 2020, the Federal Housing Finance Agency announced that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-sponsored mortgage loan companies, are extending forbearance agreements for multifamily property owners for up to three months, as long as the landlords do not evict tenants. The simultaneous implementation of federal rent relief and forbearance extensions is crucial to supporting both tenants and property owners during this pandemic.
Congress’ Next Steps
In the following months, Congress must extend the federal eviction moratorium, continue distributing unemployment benefits, and provide mortgage relief for small landlords. Ultimately, these actions are arguably all short-term solutions to the root cause of this particular eviction crisis: the pandemic. To prevent the next surge in homelessness, state and local governments need to contain the spread of the virus to reopen their economies safely. States should expand testing capacities, conduct contact tracing, encourage social distancing and mask-wearing, as well as reopen with immense caution. In doing so, Americans will be able to return to work safely, the unemployment rate will fall, and more tenants will be able to make rent on their own again.