For months, the warning was clear from economists, housing advocates, and public health experts: without more help from Congress, millions of Americans could be evicted, in the dead of winter, in the middle of a raging pandemic.
"I can't construct a darker scenario," Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi told NPR in November. "It's absolutely critical that lawmakers step up."
Now lawmakers finally have. So long as it can get past some last minute oppositionfrom President Trump, the compromise rescue bill extends a federal eviction moratorium, sets aside $25 billion for rental assistance, and extends unemployment benefits that were about to expire for 12 million people.
John Henneberger, who heads up Texas Housers, a housing non-profit, says $25 billion is just a downpayment to prevent an eviction train wreck. "But we have a little breathing room and we should be very grateful for that."
Christina Rosales, the group's deputy director, says tenants can qualify for up to 15 months of rental assistance, and that will cover months of unpaid back rent. "It will provide relief to millions of people who have been struggling to pay rent," she says.
The bill will also extend an order aimed at preventing evictions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rosales says that so-called "CDC Eviction Ban" isn't an outright ban and too many tenantsare getting evicted in spite of it. But she says the order does protect many others. So extending it is crucial.
How to apply for help and who should qualify.
The rental assistance money will be distributed by states and cities. Renters will apply for the help, and the money will be sent directly to their landlords. If a landlord doesn't cooperate, the tenant can access the funds directly.
Renters looking for assistance can call 2-1-1 or go to the website, www.211.org, says Andrew Aurand, Vice President for Research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. It's a confidential referral and information helpline. "They could tell you which organizations to go to or how to apply for emergency rental assistance in your area." He says information should be available on state and city websites as well.
Landlords may also have a powerful incentive to work with tenants instead of evicting them. Lawyers with housing groups say that given the language in the bill, assistance is only available if the tenant is still in the property. So a landlord wouldn't be able to recoup lost rent if they've already evicted the tenant.
To get the money to the people who need it most, the bill requires renters incomes be below 80% of median income; that is calculated based on recent income during the pandemic. So someone who made more money last year but lost his or her job this year can qualify.
All of this is good news to people who've fallen behind on rent.
"It's definitely a relief for me," says Ana Braxton who lives in Seattle and lost her job as a hair stylist after COVID-19 hit. Her husband also had his hours cut back and she says they owe about $10,000 in back rent.
"I mean obviously the timing is significant just because it is Christmas this week," Braxton says. "Just being able to be like, OK, we can still get certain things for Christmas, we can still do this and we're still gonna be okay." Now, she says, she and her husband will be able to buy their kids a few modest presents. "We're still gonna be afloat."
Landlords need to stay afloat too. And landlord groups have been asking for rental assistance since the outbreak began. They argue that it's not fair to have eviction moratoriums and not provide a way for them to get paid for the back-rent.
So Greg Brown with the National Apartment Association is happy to see the $25 billion in rental assistance in the bill. "The Congress has appropriated an enormous sum of money to help people stay in their homes and help the people that provide those homes," he says.
"Even though it's at the 11th hour. And we certainly would prefer it wasn't," Brown says, "It came together and a lot of people are going to be helped, which is a huge deal."
Speaking of the 11th hour, the bill has of course hit another last minute snag. The president has attacked it. The bill passed with a veto-proof majority in Congress. But for now it's still sitting on the president's desk.
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