Among the significant worries as the COVID-19 relief and stimulus programs expired with August’s arrival was the prospect of increased evictions. The concern actually presented itself in New Hampshire earlier, when the eviction moratorium declared on July 1 by Gov. Chris Sununu lapsed, but the federal government’s enhanced unemployment benefits and other CARES Act housing assistance provided help in making rent to those cast out of work by the pandemic.
That safety net disappeared when Republicans and the Trump administration failed to reach agreement with Democrats on a new relief package and Congress left Washington, casting individuals vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic ravages into heightened housing insecurity. An analysis released in August by the nonprofit Aspen Institute estimated that, nationwide, between 29 million and 40 million people were at risk of eviction in the next several months. In New Hampshire, it estimated up to 27 percent of households were at risk of eviction, and new eviction proceedings have tripled since the lifting of the moratorium, according to a report shared last week by the Granite State News Collaborative. These trends were cited recently by Keene’s Hundred Nights shelter and homelessness organization in its applications to the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for variances that would allow it to expand its capacity to address increases expected this fall and winter due to the pandemic.
The issue is a compelling one, certainly in human terms for those facing extended unemployment with decreasing means to pay food, medical and other essential living bills and still keep up with the rent. But it’s a difficult one for landlords alike. They too have taxes, mortgage payments and maintenance and other expenses to meet, and any solution must recognize that.
Following the breakdown in negotiations among congressional Republicans and Democrats and the White House, the Trump administration acted to provide some short-term relief. It has diverted some federal emergency funding to enhance state unemployment benefits. Those benefits are at a significantly reduced level, however, and the logistics of implementation have proved vexing for the states. New Hampshire paid out $81 million but has run out of funding.
More directly impacting the concern for increased evictions is a program announced last week by the administration to help keep renters in their homes. Using its authority to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will temporarily halt evictions for those earning up to $99,000 a year. The theory is that doing so will reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading if evicted renters are forced to move in with families or others, into shelters or, worse, onto the streets. It’s an unusual initiative that casts an economic need in public health terms, and credit President Trump and his administration for this innovative step to take the immediate pressure off tenants and their families.
As welcome as the CDC’s program is, it does not address — and without agreement from Congress cannot address — the other two shoes that will drop. First, tenants are not absolved from paying rent, and the unpaid rent will come due on Jan. 1 when, unless extended, the CDC’s moratorium will lapse. Second, the CDC’s action provides landlords no relief, increasing the likelihood that the pace of eviction proceedings will pick up once again next year.
The administration’s diversion of emergency funds to unemployment benefits may help tenants reduce the amount of back rent they’ll owe when the CDC moratorium expires. But that assistance is precarious at best. As the government copes with natural disaster funding needs resulting from hurricanes and wildfires, it is now approving the diversion to state unemployment benefits on only a week-by-week basis.
Congress and the White House must come to a more stable solution, and the continuing failure to do so is unconscionable. In late June, Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action NH, told Sen. Maggie Hassan during a forum addressing housing needs that 48 percent of the state’s renters pay half or more of their monthly income in rent. Without a meaningful relief package from Washington either directly or through the states, the margin is dangerously thin for those who’ve been laid off or who hold jobs at businesses at risk during the uncertain economic recovery.
In a Sept. 4 interview with National Public Radio, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell — an unlikely source for emphasizing moral imperatives — cast the need in human as well as economic terms. Saying “we should do everything we can as a country” to prevent evictions for those vulnerable during an extended period of unemployment, he noted that doing so “could have significant macroeconomic effects over time.” But, he added most tellingly, “it’s also the right thing to do.”