The next coronavirus front: evictions and foreclosures

A housing assistance fund would help low-income renters and homeowners

The coronavirus is raging. Eleven million workers are unemployed. And at the end of this month — absent immediate and urgent action by Congress and the administration — millions of American families will be put into eviction and foreclosure proceedings that will take them from their homes at the worst possible moment.

Since the coronavirus began spreading, home has been the first line of defense. Stay home, we’ve been told, to help prevent the spread of the virus. Now, a tsunami of evictions and foreclosures could become the virus’s latest front in its assault on America.

This is the nightmare scenario. It’s also entirely preventable.

We should give credit where it is due. Emergency action by Congress and the White House helped stem the housing crisis early on. Stimulus checks allowed families that had suddenly lost their jobs to make their rent or mortgage payments. Partial eviction and foreclosure moratoria put in place by federal agencies and most states gave families temporary protections.

But these measures were stop-gaps, at best. Stimulus checks have long been spent and the most comprehensive eviction and foreclosure moratoria are about to disappear entirely.

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This is a life-or-death matter. New research led by Dr. Kathryn Leifheit of UCLA shows that the expiration of various state-based housing protections led to an estimated 433,700 more cases of coronavirus and 10,700 more deaths than had they been left in place.

Now, both the CDC’s eviction moratorium and the foreclosure moratorium for some mortgages are set to expire on New Year’s Day. These measures, much needed at the time they were implemented, have now set up a cliff that we’re all about to drive over. Data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition suggest that 19 million people in the U.S. could be evicted in the coming months, with untold more threatened by foreclosure. A Wall Street Journal report notes that between 2.4 million and 5 million households face eviction in January alone.

While providing temporary relief, these moratoria did nothing to provide lasting stability for families or the housing market. Missed rent and mortgage checks have a direct impact on small landlords and lenders who will have to choose between trying to recoup their losses from these families down the line, or cutting their losses by initiating evictions or foreclosures.

What we actually need — and need immediately — is direct housing payment assistance, that will let families stay in their homes and landlords and lenders stay whole.

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reported last month that an estimated 49% of renters and 36% of homeowners have lost income since the start of the pandemic, disproportionately impacting communities of color. Twenty-three percent of Black and 20% of Hispanic renter households were behind their rent in September. Some 6.3 million homeowners had to seek mortgage forbearance between March and October.

Even many families that have managed to stay current with their housing payments are still facing impossible choices. As Evicted author Matthew Desmond has written, the rent eats first. Families will cut back on food, prescription meds, paying credit cards and virtually every other expense before housing, putting their health, education and futures on the line. The long-term costs of unaffordable housing are dire and compounding.

The families that need help now are not to blame for these circumstances. Pre-pandemic housing costs were already too high, and the workers who lost their jobs are not responsible for huge parts of the economy shutting down. Just as our nation came to the aid of airlines that lost passengers and restaurants that lost diners, we must now come to the aid of low-income homeowners and renters who need to keep their roofs overhead. With vaccines on the way, housing payment assistance will keep these families in their homes as our economy recovers.

Various forms of housing payment assistance have been included in COVID relief proposals, including some rental assistance in a recent bipartisan proposal. There are members of Congress who recognize this urgent need and Habitat for Humanity supporters have been amplifying their efforts through our Cost of Home campaign.

Still, too many of the relief proposals are leaving out the needs of lower-income homeowners, who would benefit from the creation of a housing assistance fund as proposed by Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, and Rep. David Scott, D-Ga. Supporting both renters and homeowners in this way will provide the necessary stability to the housing market.

Hundreds of millions of Americans’ next rent and mortgage payments are due on New Year’s Day. Congressional and Administration leaders can decide if that’s the day they come to the rescue of panicked families at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control, or the day we let the virus win its biggest advance yet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of HousingWire’s editorial department and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan T.M. Reckford at @JReckford.

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Sarah Wheeler at [email protected]

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