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Now is the time to engage on rental assistance

As negotiations on a new relief package continue, momentum on preventing evictions and funding comprehensive rental assistance is growing. Over the weekend, the president signed an Executive Order that may be used to “halt evictions,” according to National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow on ABC’s “This Week.” The Executive Order rightly notes that “those who are dislocated from their homes may be unable to shelter in place and may have more difficulty maintaining a routine of social distancing. They will have to find alternative living arrangements, which may include a homeless shelter or a crowded family home and may also require traveling to other States. In addition, evictions tend to disproportionately affect minorities, particularly African Americans and Latinos.” On FOX News Sunday, Kudlow said that the “Health Secretary has the authority, working with the CDC, to declare it an emergency. And, therefore, there will be no evictions.” It’s an important step in the right direction, but it is not a sustainable solution.

Ultimately, only comprehensive federal rental assistance can resolve an eviction crisis. That is because an unfunded moratorium hurts landlords now at the expense of tenants later. If you can’t pay one month’s rent, how on earth can you pay six or 12 months of rent later?

Many of you have been working hard on this, as have we. I particularly want to call out the contributions of our industry partners at the Mortgage Bankers Association, National Association of Home Builders, National Association of REALTORS®, and National Multifamily Housing Council, as well as low-income advocates like the National Alliance to End Homelessness, National Low Income Housing Coalition, and Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future, among many others. NHC has engaged directly with senior officials at the White House, the Treasury Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as the staffs of the Senate Banking Committee and the offices of several key Republican senators. All members of the Senate Banking Committee are critically important, especially Republicans. Other influential “swing votes” include Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Todd Young (R-Ind.).

Our message to all sides is simple. Rental assistance is critically needed by both small businesses AND tenants, making it an ideal issue for both progressives and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Bipartisan accord on rental assistance is an essential part of stabilizing the economy and avoiding a much bigger crisis.

Every effort helps, so if you know Republican senators or have relationships with their staffs, now is the time to engage if you haven’t already done so and reinforce your message to those you have already engaged. Those who have been supportive need encouragement; those who are unconvinced need to hear why this is important in their state. Enhanced unemployment insurance is a big deal, but without rental assistance, it’s not enough, and millions of people, including the most vulnerable, will be left out. [continue to link here]

In a perfect world, I’d love to see $100 billion in rental assistance, but I also know that something less than that will be an important downpayment on a mechanism that can be enhanced later (as we have seen with unemployment insurance and the PPP program). We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. According to Stout Risius Ross, LLC, renters already owe their landlords $21.5 billion in back rent due to COVID-19 related unemployment. To get us through the end of the year, we are likely to need at least another $15 billion.

Another issue is what is the best mechanism to deliver the assistance. On this, the Urban Institute published a comprehensive report analyzing the various channels of rental assistance. Its conclusion was that “Emergency Solutions Grants and tenant-based HCV programs emerged as having the most potential to efficiently and equitably meet the needs of the most low- and moderate-income renters and their landlords.” However, these two programs “may overlook the potential of innovative new assistance approaches that merit further consideration as the economic recovery continues.” There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and flexibility will be an essential element of any successful approach.

Finally, we must keep in mind that this is more than just a financial issue. An eviction is a very public experience that impacts the entire community. Your belongings are dumped on the street while your children and neighbors watch. Modern social media is not necessary to ignite a reaction under the right circumstances. Given the high degree of tension we are already experiencing, I don’t think that’s a dynamic we want to test. The Kerner Commission cited housing instability as a major cause of the “Long Hot Summer” in 1967. That’s not a lesson we want to relearn.

David M. Dworkin is president and CEO of the National Housing Conference.

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