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Opinion: How Congress Can Avoid A Housing Catastrophe

Opinion: How Congress Can Avoid A Housing Catastrophe

NMHC President Doug Bibby outlines steps Congress can take to avert a housing catastrophe.

Congress has a rapidly closing window to stave off a coming crisis in American housing markets and some lawmakers are running in the wrong direction. To jumpstart the economy and build on the initial round of assistance to American families and businesses, Congress and administration officials should return to the bargaining table and get the job done on a COVID-19 relief package that stabilizes the economy, keeps families afloat and prevents a genuine housing catastrophe. 

More than a third of American households rent — over 40 million — and the economic impact of this pandemic leaves them especially vulnerable. Before the pandemic, one-in-four renters already spent over half their income on housing. Renters are typically concentrated in industries that have been most susceptible to layoffs. And all this comes at a time when as many as 40 percent of Americans cannot withstand an emergency expense of $400. Asking families, particularly those who rent, to meet their financial obligations without assistance — as some in Congress are considering — is a recipe for disaster.   

Making matters worse, Congress and the administration allowed federal unemployment insurance (UI) benefits to expire — a critical lifeline for those looking for work to pay their bills, and in the case of those who live in apartments, their rent. While President Trump has taken executive action to extend additional unemployment payments totaling $400 a week, uncertainty around the order — how much states will be on the hook for and which workers will be eligible — has called into question whether the measure will truly help those in need. For example, officials expect that it will take weeks for states and the federal government to disburse these funds and some states are already weeks behind in processing unemployment claims. 

We know that providing assistance to renters — through UI and direct assistance — is the best way to prevent potential evictions. How do we know that? Even in light of record-setting unemployment claims and an economy that shut down virtually overnight, people have been able to pay their rent, and apartment owners have met them halfway with flexible payment plans to keep them in their homes. Congress has a chance to keep this going. 

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