Let’s set the stage. Coronavirus is everywhere. You’ve been quarantined in your house, with your family. You feel safe. It’s boring and unending, but your home is a sanctuary.
What if you were locked out of your home and had nowhere to go and no money to pay for it?
On July 24, the federal moratorium that was protecting many renters from eviction ended without a replacement plan. This provision in the CARES Act prevented landlords from filing eviction notices, or charging penalties for nonpayment of rent, or giving renters a 30-day notice to vacate. For those months, renters who had lost their jobs had the small assurance that they would not lose their homes as well. For homeowners, most financially-stressed mortgage holders saw a six-month forbearance window, with the possibility for more if needed.
To make matters worse for the unemployed, the weekly $600 unemployment benefit that kept many afloat expired on July 31. While legislators negotiate a follow up bill, working-class people try to imagine what life will be like without a room of their own. Some states and cities provide help, but American families depend on federal assistance and the enforcement of laws preventing eviction.
According to Census Bureau data in July, nearly 12 million adults live in households that missed their last rent payment, and 23 million have little or no confidence in their ability to make the next one. And this survey took place before the financial assistance ended.
Without a steady income and without eviction protections, American families face the unthinkable: losing a place to live and being unable to demonstrate an income to rent or buy somewhere else.
If only the pandemic were the only housing crisis facing America. Sadly, housing insecurity was already a crisis and it’s been compounded by Trump Administration actions.
Even in early 2019, despite the lowest unemployment rate in decades and solid economic growth, millions of middle-class Americans were just one missed paycheck away from poverty and could not cope with a sudden disruption to income. Note that this wasn’t a problem just for the poor, and this was a problem in a better economic climate than today’s and the unchanged downturn we expect for the immediate future.
In mid-2019, a survey from NORC at the University of Chicago found that 51% of Americans would need to dip into savings if they missed a single paycheck. Savings have been battered for months for the Americans who are now losing housing protections that have helped them survive the last few months. In the same survey, 65 percent of Hispanic households and 67 percent of households earning less than $30,000 annually would be unable to pay for necessities if they missed more than one paycheck.
The American Bar Association (ABA) expressed its concerns about fair housing policy in late 2019, stating that “HUD has been eliminating, delaying, or revising its fair housing regulations in ways that are at odds with the intent of the Fair Housing Act, and in conflict with longstanding federal housing policy”. Most of the Trump Administration changes result in reductions to programs that help minorities.
The ABA cites unfavorable changes to the Small Area Fair Market Rent Rule that enables low-income families to move to areas with better job opportunities, the suspension of a recent Fair Housing rule against racial bias, and gutting the Disparate Impact Rule, which “would allow financial institutions, insurance companies, and housing providers to adopt policies and practices or engage in covert discriminatory practices”.
The head of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon with no experience in housing policy.
So now the pandemic is here. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act was the largest economic stimulus package in US history and helped millions of Americans stave off disaster in the months after the US economy succumbed to the coronavirus. But right now, the Senate has not yet formulated a strategy for keeping Americans in their homes, and the help from the CARES Act is over. The House has passed a bill, and is awaiting negotiations with the Senate and the White House; neither the Senate nor the White House put forward any plans in time for a seamless transition to a new stimulus.
The Economic Policy Institute issued a report that explores how Black Americans are most hurt by the pandemic, because of health, wealth, and yes, housing inequality. As of April, less than half of the adult Black population was employed. White families hold five times as much in liquid assets as Black families, and median income for white households is 70% higher than for Black households.
In 2015, the Obama-Biden Administration set up the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule (AFFH) as part of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The 2015 rules required cities and towns that receive funding from HUD to document patterns of racial bias, to publicly report the results, and to set and track goals to reduce segregation.
This is the rule that HUD suspended in early 2018 without much fanfare. In 2020, in an effort to improve his polling among white suburban voters, Donald Trump announced that he had rescinded the AFFH rule, via a shamelessly racist tweet. He’s the first openly pro-segregation politician in decades.
In contrast, Joe Biden has fought for housing equality since his first year in government as a County Councilman. He sought to end “redlining”, the practice of excluding communities, usually minority communities, from business services such as banking, or promoting discriminatory practices that offer the services at a higher price than the cost to surrounding communities.
Vice President Biden believes that housing is a right, not a privilege. He envisions an investment of $640 billion over 10 years. The goal of this investment is so that every American has access to housing that is affordable, stable, safe and healthy, accessible, energy efficient and resilient, and located near good schools and with a reasonable commute to jobs. It’s the life most of us take for granted and couldn’t stand to be without. Don’t we want that for our neighbors?
As Joe Biden said in a July 29 interview, “Look, this is a crisis. We have an enormous opportunity to build back better and to finally tear down the barriers that have kept far too many people from fully participating.”
Redlining is still a problem in poor communities, and Joe Biden addresses many of these inequities with proposals such as creating a Homeowner and Renter Bill of Rights, including protections against mortgage brokers leading borrowers into above-market loans, protections against precipitous foreclosures, and additional rights to seek financial redress, to receive timely notifications about the status of loan modifications, and to appeal modification denials.
He will create infrastructure to help tenants facing eviction to find legal assistance, and work with localities to find alternatives that can reduce the number of evictions. He will address discriminatory practices affecting people of color and low-income families, and hold financial institutions accountable for discriminatory practices. He’ll expand the Community Reinvestment Act and reinstate the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule that was rescinded by Donald Trump.
Biden’s plans include creating a new refundable, advanceable tax credit of up to $15,000 to help families buy their first home, ensuring that no one has to pay more than 30% of their income for rental housing, introducing tax credits and housing benefits, and creating a public credit reporting agency to improve credit reporting and address racial disparities.
He’ll work to invest in constructing affordable, energy-efficient housing, and expand existing programs that provide housing to communities in need. Through tax incentives, funding and regulatory initiatives, the Biden Plan will improve access to affordable housing. In coordination with the Biden infrastructure plan, urban and rural communities will benefit from transportation and other investments, and special attention will be paid to the unmet needs of our valued military families.
Plans are in place to protect the most vulnerable of us from homelessness, especially for groups such as veterans, LGBTQ+ individuals, those with disabilities, the elderly, the formerly incarcerated, and victims of sexual violence.
According to a study made using a Columbia University model, Biden’s plan “could cut child poverty by a third, narrow racial opportunity gaps, and potentially drive progress on the broader middle-class affordability crisis in the largest coastal cities as well.”
There’s a lot to do, and Joe Biden has a plan to get it done. This pandemic has put housing insecurity front and center and made us all realize how terrifying it must be to experience it. We need laws, not Congressional stalemates. Let’s help our neighbors by electing Joe Biden and Democrats up and down the ballot. As Joe Biden reminds us, housing is a right, not a privilege.
Here are some resources if you need help:
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Legal help FAQ on eviction and rent protections: