July 29, 2020 / 9:56 PM / 14 days ago

U.S. renters owe $21.5 billion in back rent; Republicans offer no eviction relief

NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than $21.5 billion in past-due rent is looming over Americans struggling to make ends meet, global advisory firm Stout, Risius and Ross estimated on Wednesday, as Republicans and Democrats fight over a new COVID-19 relief package.

FILE PHOTO: Sandra Cruz, who lost her job because of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, and fell four months behind on her rent and is fearing eviction, and her daughter Gabriella wait for a ride after picking up free groceries distributed by the Chelsea Collaborative in Chelsea, Massachusetts, U.S., July 22, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Senate Republicans this week proposed a new plan that would not reinstate the recently-lapsed federal eviction ban, which carried a stay for rent due for one-third of renters. Adding to the strain, enhanced $600 weekly federal unemployment benefits are set to evaporate this Friday.

Without a solution soon, the likely result “will be a staggering surge in homelessness unlike anything we have seen,” said John Pollock, a Public Justice Center attorney and coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC), which helped develop the eviction tracking tool with Stout, Risius and Ross.

The unprecedented amount of back rent is not a macro-economic game changer, said Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi. But for renters, “it’s catastrophic. Very few people will be able to pay this back,” he said.

A debt spiral could haunt displaced tenants “for a lifetime,” he added.

Over the spring and early summer, as unemployment surged to levels unseen since the aftermath of the 1930s Great Depression, a patchwork of federal, state and local eviction bans kept renters in their homes.

On Friday, the eviction ban that covered the third of renters in buildings with mortgages backed by the federal government lapsed. The rent deferred over four months is now due, as is all the rent where local and state moratoria on evictions have also ended.

When rent goes missing over such an extended period, the low-end of the market becomes a house of cards and “it starts to fall down,” said Emily Benfer, who co-created the COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, a national research center on evictions.

“Risk of eviction increases, risk of foreclosure and bankruptcy follows, property taxes go unpaid leaving communities and schools under-resourced,” said Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a measure in May that would have extended the enhanced jobless aid through January and allocated $100 billion for rental assistance. It would also have extended the federal ban on evictions for up to one year.

The Republican-controlled Senate package unveiled Monday focuses on getting kids back in school, workers back to work and winning the fight against the virus, the Office of the Senate Majority Leader said in a statement.

It proposes cutting the enhanced unemployment assistance to $200 a week, and does not mention housing, evictions, or reinstating the eviction ban.

The Senate Republican Communications Center did not respond to requests for comment.

The Senate Banking Committee, which oversees housing, cited a statement by Senate Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) on Tuesday.

“I can’t answer that yet,” he told reporters when asked about an extension of the eviction moratorium. “There will be something, I hope, dealing with rental assistance.”

An avalanche of filings are hitting eviction courts nationwide, as hearings ramp up again online, in courtrooms that require social distancing, and even at the Columbus, Ohio convention center. In July alone, 21% of renters paid no rent, according to research firm Apartment List.

Stout and the NCCRC analyzed census survey results and income data to create their eviction tracker, which uploads data weekly. Of the 44 million U.S. renter households, 17.3 million are unable to pay rent and risk eviction, the tracker estimates.

Reporting By Michelle Conlin; Editing by Tom Lasseter and Richard Chang

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