The $900 billion relief bill passed by Congress last night incorporated several sought-after goals of housing advocates, including $25 billion in dedicated emergency rental relief and a one-month extension of the federal government's controversial eviction moratorium.
Landlord groups and low-income housing advocates were united in praising the inclusion of rental relief while expressing disappointment that it was only $25 billion.
"The long-awaited coronavirus relief package and its dedicated rental assistance is an important down payment toward the nation's projected $70 billion in rental debt," said the National Apartment Association in a statement, citing an estimate from Moody's Analytics on the amount of rental debt accrued during the pandemic.
"While $25 billion in emergency rental assistance is clearly not enough to meet the estimated $70 billion in accrued back rent or the ongoing need for rental assistance to keep families stably housed," said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). "These resources are essential and desperately needed."
Both groups had expressed support for House Democrats' proposal—which passed as part of the $3 trillion HEROES Act back in May—for $100 billion in emergency rent relief.
In addition to being less generous, Monday's bill also appears to be more targeted at lower-income and/or jobless renters. It would require states and localities—who are responsible for distributing this emergency rental assistance—to prioritize applications from households earning no more than 50 percent of an area's median income, or who have at least one person in the household who's been unemployed for at least 90 days.
That's in contrast to the rental assistance provisions of the HEROES Act, which required that 70 percent of funds be spent on individuals or families earning less than 50 percent of an area's median income, and made those earning up to 120 percent of an area's median income eligible for federal assistance.
Spending less money, but directing more of it to low-income and jobless renters is an improvement on the HEROES Act.
One potential downside, however, is that the more targeted relief measures become, the more red tape and bureaucracy are needed to ensure that those who receive aid actually qualify for it. That could slow down the delivery of relief, something that's been a persistent problem during the pandemic.
"There's been really well-documented problems with unemployment insurance getting to its intended recipients. I think the problem with novel rental assistance will be more difficult to deliver," says Emily Hamilton of George Mason University's Mercatus Center.
The New York Times reports that of the $4.3 billion of CARES Act funding local and state governments used to set up rental assistance funds, some $300 million remains unspent, with the time needed to vet applicants cited as a major reason.
Given those problems, it might make more sense to funnel money through existing relief programs like unemployment insurance or spend it on less restricted programs like universal stimulus payments.
The relief bill, as mentioned, also includes a one-month extension of the nationwide eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) back in September, and which was set to expire at the end of this month.
The idea behind a one-month extension, according to supporters, is to keep tenant protections in place through the end of the Trump administration in the hopes that a newly inaugurated President Joe Biden will issue a more lasting moratorium.
"Extending the moratorium through January provides time for emergency rental assistance to be distributed, and for President-elect Biden to improve and further extend the moratorium immediately after being sworn into office," said Yentel.
The federal eviction moratorium has been the subject of numerous lawsuits from landlords who've argued, in part, that the CDC vastly exceeded the authority given to it by Congress when issuing the policy.
Congress passing a short-term extension of the federal ban on evictions, only to kick the can back to the CDC, doesn't fix that concern, says Luke Wake of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing several landlords in their case against the CDC's moratorium.
"Congress knows how to do an eviction moratorium if it wants to do that," says Wake. "If they do it so that it expires at the end of January, and the CDC says that now that's expired, we're going to reissue our rule, that really becomes a very sketchy assertion of authority at that point."
Rent Free is a weekly newsletter from Christian Britschgi on urbanism and the fight for less regulation, more housing, more property rights, and more freedom in America's cities.