The Washington Times Weekly

Back-pay bills loom for households rescued by moratorium­s

- BY DAVE BOYER

Federal moratorium­s on evictions and bans on mortgage foreclosur­es have helped ease the housing crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a massive bill is coming due for renters, homeowners, landlords and taxpayers as the coronaviru­s crisis enters its second year.

An estimated 9.4 million households in the U.S. owe about $57.3 billion in back rent, utilities and late fees that they must pay eventually — an average of $5,600 per household. A federal moratorium on evictions for not paying rent is due to expire March 31.

About 2.7 million homeowners are enrolled in pandemic-related mortgage forbearanc­e plans that defer monthly payments through June 30. President Biden extended the deadline last month. More than 10 million adults live in households that are behind on mortgage payments.

Washington provided $25 billion in aid for renters and landlords in a $900 billion relief package approved in December. Renters must show that their hardship is related to the pandemic and that they are at risk of becoming homeless.

In addition to the federal aid, states and municipali­ties have protected tenants with a patchwork of eviction moratorium­s that too often stick the bill with some landlords, said Oliver Dunford, a lawyer with the libertaria­n Pacific Legal Foundation. He said landlords still have mortgages, taxes and other costs to pay.

“They are making the landlords alone foot the bill in many of these schemes, which we think is unconstitu­tional,” Mr. Dunford said. “Even if you’re a small landlord renting to commercial tenants, they themselves have mortgage bills to pay.”

Eviction moratorium­s do not waive tenants’ obligation­s to eventually pay their accumulate­d rent debt. But in California, state law allows tenants with pandemic hardships to have all of their accrued rent debt wiped away for the period from April 1 last year to March 31 this year. A landlord’s forgivenes­s of 20% of the debt is required. If the landlord agrees, then federal taxpayers cover the remaining 80%.

Mr. Biden’s latest $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan would provide another $25 billion in direct rental relief to landlords, plus $5 billion for utilities, and would extend the federal eviction moratorium through September. It also would provide $10 billion in mortgage assistance, including homeowners’ property taxes, insurance premiums and utilities.

“Relief is on the way for renters and small landlords,” tweeted Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The president said at a town-hall meeting in Milwaukee last month that the nation can’t afford not to provide another bailout for tenants and homeowners.

“Look at all the people who are on the verge of being kicked out of their apartments because they cannot afford the rent,” Mr. Biden said. “What happens when that happens? Look at all the mom-and-pop landlords that are in real trouble if we don’t subsidize this in the meantime. Look at all the people are on the verge of missing — and how many people have missed — their last two mortgage payments, and are able to be foreclosed on? That’s why I took executive action to say they cannot be foreclosed on in the meantime — because look at what the impact on the economy would be. You think it’s bad now? Let all that happen. The vast majority of serious people say bigger is better now, not spending less.”

Emily Benfer, visiting law professor at Wake Forest University who has studied the eviction crisis, agreed with Mr. Biden that the consequenc­es of not spending enough for short-term housing in the next bill would create longer-term problems. She co-authored a report that said evictions could accelerate the transmissi­on of COVID19 by increasing crowding in households.

She said homelessne­ss also results in “literally taking years off of people’s lives and setting them on this downward trajectory that has no ladder back up.”

“Housing is one of the most significan­t pillars of resiliency,” she said. “When you wipe that out, it results in increased unemployme­nt, in barriers to employment, in substandar­d housing conditions that increase poor health. It’s associated with dozens of severe negative health consequenc­es, from physical health to mental health. It results in pre-term pregnancie­s and numerous associated conditions for children that are extremely devastatin­g.”

Some landlords won’t accept tenants who have been evicted.

Ms. Benfer rejected the suggestion that landlords are losing more than others in the crisis. She noted that in Forsyth County, North Carolina, 170 eviction cases brought “primarily by very large property owners” were moving forward recently.

“I don’t think that the data is really comprehens­ive on who’s being hardest hit here, and which landlords are really suffering. Because the rental assistance is coming, and these forbearanc­e and foreclosur­e programs are in place, I think we can be optimistic that they will be able to weather the storm as long as additional rental assistance comes through.”

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