COVID Relief/Federal Spending Update
Congress passed and then-President Trump signed a federal spending bill for fiscal year (FY) 2021 on December 27. In addition to providing essential funding for federal affordable housing and community development programs, the bill also provided vital – but limited—COVID-19 relief, including $25 billion in emergency rental assistance and a one-month extension of the federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Overall, the spending bill provided HUD $49.6 billion, an increase of $561 million over FY20 enacted funding levels. Congress clearly rejected former President Trump’s request to drastically cut housing benefits that help millions of low-income seniors, people with disabilities, families with children, veterans, and other individuals afford their homes. For more details on the FY21 spending bill, see NLIHC’s budget chart: https://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/NLIHC_HUD-USDA_Budget-Chart_FY21…
While these provisions provided urgently needed assistance, it is still not enough to meet the level of need. Then President-elect Biden released on January 14 a $1.9 trillion proposal for a comprehensive coronavirus relief package that included an extension of the federal eviction moratorium through September 2021; $30 billion in emergency rental and utility assistance; and $5 billion to address the health and housing needs of people experiencing homelessness.
At the time this article is being written, Congress is moving quickly to pass a COVID-19 relief bill. The Democratic leadership is moving ahead with a budget reconciliation process that allows Congress to pass a relief package with a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate. After Congress approved a budget resolution that set the topline spending limit for a relief package, individual committees voted on individual spending bills for programs within their jurisdictions before they are combined into a full package for final votes. Congress and the White House are aiming to enact a new COVID relief bill by mid-March, when expanded unemployment benefits and other resources expire.
The House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) released a COVID-19 relief bill that would provide urgently needed resources for America’s lowest-income renters and people experiencing homelessness.
The bill provides $25 billion in rental assistance including: $19.05 billion for emergency rental assistance (ERA); $5 billion for emergency housing vouchers; $750 million for tribal housing needs; and $100 million for rural housing. The bill also provides $5 billion to assist people who are homeless with immediate and longer-term assistance, $9.96 billion for homeowner assistance, and $100 million for housing counseling. An additional $4.5 billion is provided in a separate bill for utility assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
If enacted, these investments will help prevent millions of low-income people from losing their homes during the pandemic and will provide cities and states with the resources they need to help people experiencing homelessness be safely housed during and after the pandemic.
Looking Back at State and Local Emergency Rental Assistance Programs in 2020
The COVID-19 relief package passed at the end of 2020 provides much needed assistance for renters. It commits $25 billion to emergency rental assistance and extended the federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (which President Biden extended through March 31). The previous relief package (the CARES Act) included several funding streams that states and local jurisdictions could choose to use for emergency rental assistance, which resulted in an uneven pattern of jurisdictions choosing to develop emergency rental assistance programs. The most recent COVID-19 relief package requires that states and local jurisdictions use the funding on emergency rental assistance and/or utilities.
Between March and December 2020, NLIHC identified over 500 emergency rental assistance programs created or expanded as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of the year, 45 states, 385 local jurisdictions, and the District of Columbia had launched emergency rental assistance programs in response to the pandemic, with at least $4.4 billion dedicated to rent relief. Most programs only provided short-term assistance (three months or less), though the pandemic has endured for much longer. Most programs asked households to demonstrate COVID-related hardship, income eligibility, and proof of residency within the jurisdiction. Few programs specifically targeted extremely low-income renters.
NLIHC continues to track programs and regularly update its online database of these programs on a weekly basis. Find an emergency rental assistance program near you at: https://nlihc.org/rental-assistance.
The new $25 billion of emergency rental assistance will significantly contribute to meeting the needs of tenants who need rental assistance. Based on NLIHC’s research and ongoing working groups, however, programs can do several things to help tenants more efficiently and effectively. Advocates should urge programs to (1) simplify their application process for rental assistance and allow for people to apply by internet, phone, and mail; (2) require fewer documents from tenants and allow self-certification as a form of documentation; (3) partner with locally embedded organizations to reach out to tenants and assist with the application process; and (4) use deeper income targeting to ensure tenants with the greatest needs receive assistance. Lastly, though $25 billion will help meet many renters’ needs, more funding for emergency rental assistance is still needed. (See related article on President Biden’s proposal and a House Financial Services Committee draft legislation to provide more.)
Overview of Eviction Protections During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Please note: there might have been additional federal action between the publication of this article and when you are reading it.
Evictions and homelessness have enormous consequences for individuals, their communities, and our nation’s public health. Families evicted from their homes and forced to double or triple up with other families face greater challenges practicing social distancing. People experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable to an outbreak of highly communicable diseases like COVID-19.
Recognizing that eviction bans are an important public health tool to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the federal government issued two temporary moratoriums on eviction for nonpayment of rent during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the federal eviction protections enacted through the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act” and then by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many governors and local officials enacted state and local eviction protections.
CARES Act Eviction and Foreclosure Moratorium
The CARES Act, enacted on March 27, 2020, halted all eviction actions in any property that receives federal funding for 120 days. The moratorium prohibited owners in covered properties from filing new evictions against tenants for nonpayment of rent and charging additional fees related to nonpayment. Under the CARES Act eviction ban, housing providers were required to provide tenants a 30-day notice to evict, which could not be given until after the 120-day moratorium ended on July 24, 2020. While the CARES Act moratorium provided important protections, it did not prevent renters from accruing housing debt. Additionally, it was difficult for renters to know if they were protected under the CARES Act, allowing some landlords to continue evicting tenants despite the federal ban. The ban protected only 30% of renters nationwide, which left many low-income households at risk of losing their homes during the pandemic.
CDC National Eviction Moratorium
The CDC issued a national moratorium on September 1 preventing most evictions for nonpayment of rent. The CDC issued the national eviction ban after many state and federal eviction protections, including the CARES Act moratorium, had expired. The moratorium provides essential protection to millions of renters, but renters must still pay back-rent when the moratorium expires. The protections under the CDC moratorium are not automatic. To be protected under the CDC order, tenants must submit a signed declaration to their landlord stating that they meet certain qualifications. For more information, see this FAQ for Renters created by NLIHC and the National Housing Law Project: https://bit.ly/36oHD0L
The national moratorium was initially set to expire on December 31, 2020, but Congress passed an emergency COVID-19 relief bill in December that extended the federal eviction moratorium through January 31, 2021. On President Joe Biden’s first day in office, he issued an executive order instructing the CDC to extend the federal eviction moratorium through March 2021, which CDC Director Rochelle Walensky did. The COVID-19 relief legislation also provides $25 billion in emergency rental assistance administered by the Treasury Department. See NLIHC’s FAQ on Emergency Rental Assistance to learn more at: https://bit.ly/36oHD0L
Congress and the White House Must Take Action
To prevent 30 to 40 million renters from losing their homes this winter, Congress and the White House must take action. NLIHC and advocates across the country are urging President Biden to further extend, improve, and enforce the federal eviction moratorium. Congress must also pass a new COVID-19 relief package with additional funds for rent relief and homelessness assistance (see related article).
In addition to advocating for additional COVID-19 relief, NLIHC will be pushing for a major expansion of housing assistance in 2021. We look forward to working with the incoming administration and the new Congress to ensure the lowest-income people have access to safe, stable, affordable, and accessible homes.
The Cost of Evictions
NLIHC and the Innovation for Justice Program published in November 2020 Costs of COVID-19 Evictions, which estimates the significant increase in social services spending that would be necessary if millions of renters were evicted. Millions of households need rental assistance and the extension of the federal eviction moratorium to stay housed during the pandemic. Evictions harm physical and mental health, disrupt children’s education, endanger continued employment, and increase other forms of material hardship. During an ongoing pandemic, evictions also put renters at significant risk of exposure to life-threatening illness.
The report finds that, over and above these primary reasons to avoid an evictions cliff, evictions would also strain local governments and public agencies with unsustainable costs. Evicted renters are more likely to need emergency shelter beds. Some of those renters experience homelessness as a result of eviction, which can lead to greater needs for emergency medical care or hospitalization. Children in evicted families have elevated risks of being placed in foster care, and youth who experience homelessness are at greater risk of being arrested and detained for juvenile delinquency. The report estimates the cost of these social services—emergency shelter, emergency and inpatient medical care, foster care, and juvenile-justice detention—for renters at risk of eviction.
Estimates of how many renter households are at risk of eviction varies, so the report also offers a range of cost estimates. The estimates of renters at risk are based on what renters are reporting to the Census Bureau about their confidence in paying next month’s rent on time. If 6.6 million renter households are evicted, these public costs may be as much as $62 billion. If as many as 14 million renter households are evicted, the costs for these services could be as high as $129 billion. These estimates are drawn from existing studies on the rates at which people experiencing homelessness need these services and their typical costs.
Based on the average cost of a shelter bed, the increase in homelessness could require $56 billion for emergency shelters. Public hospitals would face nearly $18 billion in costs for additional ER visits. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to need inpatient medical care, and the costs of hospitalization could cost $29 billion. Importantly, these costs do not account for all the additional services that would be needed. They do not include the cost of adapting homeless shelters for COVID-19 or the long-term health care needs created by experiencing homelessness, for instance. A wave of evictions would not only be unjust and harmful to evicted renters—it would also create wider economic damage. Since these costs can be avoided if renters are not thrown out of their homes, the report calls on Congress to adequately fund emergency rental assistance programs.
Several Disaster Recovery Reform Bills Advance in Congress
In the latter half of 2020, every part of the country was impacted by a disaster. The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season saw a record-breaking number of storms, with several striking coastal Louisiana. Destructive wildfires burned up and down the West Coast destroying entire communities and producing clouds of smoke that harmed agricultural and outdoor workers from California to the Mississippi River. And the COVID-19 pandemic has raged virtually unchecked nationwide. Amid these disasters, recovery advocates and their congressional partners continued to push for reforms to the country’s disaster recovery system so that all survivors can access the help they need to recover. Guided by the reforms outlined in NLIHC’s Reforming America’s Disaster Recovery System report released this past summer, the members and partners of the NLIHC-led Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC) worked to successfully advance multiple bills through the House of Representatives along bi-partisan lines.
The “Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act” (H.R. 2914), introduced by Representative Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and supported by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR), was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives in November of 2020. The bill was written with input from DHRC members and includes many of the Coalition’s top priorities. The legislation addresses the significant title-documentation challenges that have resulted in thousands of eligible disaster survivors being wrongfully denied FEMA assistance. The bill would provide a new framework to make it easier for disaster survivors to prove residency by completing a “declarative statement” or by submitting a broader range of acceptable documents, in lieu of a formal title to property or leases. The declarative statement is like the one created by DHRC Puerto Rico Working Group members after Hurricane Maria – where over 77,000 survivors were denied assistance due to lack of title documentation. The bill’s reforms are crucial in helping low-income renters, people experiencing homelessness, residents of manufactured housing, people living on tribal lands, and other survivors get the assistance to which they are eligible.
The “FEMA Assistance Relief Act of 2020” (H.R. 8266), sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR), was also passed unanimously by the House in November of 2020. The bill would direct FEMA to increase funding for state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, as well as some nonprofits, through its Public Assistance (PA) program by significantly reducing the cost-share requirements of governments and nonprofits. The bill would reimburse COVID-related expenses by 100% and 2020 disaster-related expenses at 90% of costs. FEMA PA has been a valuable source of assistance to cities and local governments attempting to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and house individuals experiencing homelessness, individuals living with disabilities, and other residents of congregate facilities in non-congregate sheltering during the pandemic. Increasing the amount of reimbursement received for these costs will encourage these life-saving programs to continue and expand. Note: The Biden administration issued an Executive Order making FEMA cost-share for non-congregate sheltering 100%, retroactive to the start of the pandemic!
Another important piece of legislation was introduced for the first time. Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced the “Crisis Housing Act of 2020” (S.5004) in late 2020. The bill would establish the Crisis Housing Assistance Program (CHAP), a new voucher program that would be automatically triggered by a natural disaster declaration or sharp rises in state unemployment levels. CHAP would provide housing assistance through local public housing agencies for low-income households. FEMA housing programs have long been criticized by advocates for neglecting to meet the longer-term housing needs of low-income disaster survivors. By utilizing CHAP, survivors could gain quick access to longer-term housing of their own choosing quickly after a disaster.
As a new administration and Congress convenes, the members and partners of the DHRC and its allies on Capitol Hill will continue to push for the full passage of these bills to ensure that all disaster survivors, including those with low incomes, receive the assistance they need to fully recover.