Homelessness could surge this year unless Congress acts

Advocates are pushing lawmakers to beef up assistance to low-income people so they can keep their housing during the economic downturn.

Rectangles designed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus by encouraging social distancing line a city-sanctioned homeless encampment at San Francisco's Civic Center on May 21.
AP Photo/Noah Berger
June 24, 2020, 8 p.m.

As Capitol Hill stalls on the next round of coronavirus aid, advocates on homeless issues are growing worried.

Even before the pandemic, more than half a million Americans were experiencing homelessness, with more than one-third in unsheltered locations. Since the country shut down to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus, millions have lost their jobs, and experts are concerned about dwindling funding for rental assistance and rapidly expiring moratoriums on evictions.

Unless Congress takes action this summer, advocates and experts told National Journal they expect a surge in homelessness across the country and insufficient funding to assist people in need.

Advocates are calling on lawmakers to renew and expand a block on evictions that was included in the $2 trillion coronavirus package passed in March.

The CARES Act provided a moratorium until late July on evictions for rental units in properties that participate in federal assistance programs or are subject to certain federally backed mortgage loans. After that date, tenants must be given 30 days' notice before they can be evicted from a property.

Regina Reed, the national health policy organizer for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, said she wants the moratorium lengthened and broadened to encompass more renters.

“The economic impact of this isn’t going away,” Reed said. “Even in the best-case scenario, if coronavirus is over in a few months, we’re going to see the economic downturn for months and months and years to come, so we need the protections like this moratorium on evictions to go on as long as it can.”

The House may consider a bill on the floor this week that includes a 12-month moratorium on evictions not only in federally assisted housing but other rental properties as well. The legislation would provide $100 billion for rental assistance targeted toward low-income individuals or families who are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness. These provisions were also included in the Democratic-backed HEROES Act.

Several states and localities enacted their own moratoriums on evictions, but some have already expired. North Carolina’s ban on evictions expired on June 21, for instance, while Oregon’s order expires at the end of the month.

“Inevitably, we’re going to have an increase in homelessness because of the economic conditions that are coming with COVID, but eviction moratorium is a huge piece of preventing this from getting much, much worse,” said Emmy Tiderington, associate professor at Rutgers School of Social Work.

If the moratoriums expire, including the national-level ban on evictions, many people could end up on the streets or in shelters.

Tiderington said states and localities do not have enough resources to provide permanent, stable housing for everyone experiencing homelessness already. If the national moratorium expires, she said, the impact would be “devastating.”

“If there’s a huge influx of new people that need housing, we can just expect that they’re not going to get housed and there will be many, many more people at higher risk for infection,” she said.

Congress will also have to provide rental assistance along with eviction protections, experts said.

“We have a system where most housing, most rental housing, is provided by private business—people who are running a business and they are providing a service,” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “They need to get paid or they’re not going to provide the service anymore, and as long as you are going to stick with that as the basic system, then you have to have money on the table to pay for that.”

Putting a stop to evictions without offering rental assistance could also leave low-income renters saddled with debt, said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“From the beginning, we have said that eviction moratoriums are very important but not enough on their own, because what they do is create a financial cliff for low-income renters to fall off of when those moratoriums are lifted and back rent is owed,” Yentel said. “In many communities across the country now, back rent is owed and low-income renters are no more able to pay it today than they were at the start of the pandemic when they were losing their jobs.”

The CARES Act provided $2.25 billion in rental assistance for tenants in public and project-based housing. The legislation provided another $5 billion to Community Development Block Grants and $150 billion in the Coronavirus Relief Fund, which could also be used for rental assistance by state and local governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Where localities set up rental assistance using the block grants and relief funds, Yentel said, some of that money did not last very long. “What’s happening is it’s very clear that those resources pale in comparison to the need,” she said. “In places where they create and open up for applications for emergency rental-assistance programs, the localities are quickly overwhelmed by the demand and have to shut down the programs pretty quickly.”

The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated in May that $9.9 billion per month in rental assistance would be needed to help low-income renters keep their housing.

Rental assistance and moratoriums on evictions are only short-term solutions to a bigger problem, experts told National Journal, arguing that lawmakers need to consider substantive long-term policies to combat housing and homelessness issues in the U.S.

“What we’re seeing now is a crisis on top of a crisis,” Yentel said. “We had an affordable-housing crisis in our country before COVID-19, and we will have it after COVID-19.

“Unless we are willing as a country to make the kind of substantial investments needed in long-term solutions to end homelessness and end housing poverty, then we will face this crisis again during the next pandemic or the next natural disaster, or even just during the next year,” she added, “because we still have not solved for the underlying shortage of homes affordable and available to the lowest-income people.”

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