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 opposition from 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 nonprofit, says $25 billion is just a down payment 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 that tenants can qualify for up to 15 months of rental assistance and that this 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 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that's aimed at preventing evictions. Rosales says that the so-called CDC eviction ban isn't an outright ban and that too many tenants are 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 211 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 help line. "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 available only if the tenant is still in the property. So a landlord wouldn't be able to recoup lost rent if the landlord had already evicted the tenant.
To get the money to the people who need it most, the bill requires renters' incomes to be below 80% of median income; that is calculated based on recent income during the coronavirus 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 OK.' " 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 of 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 eleventh 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 eleventh 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.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Unless there's more help from Congress coming, millions of Americans who rent their homes could be evicted in the middle of the winter. We don't know if the COVID relief bill will be approved. Congress negotiated for seven months, struck a deal, and then the president called it a disgrace. But what's in this legislation that could help renters? NPR's Chris Arnold has been looking into it. Good morning, Chris.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: What's in the relief bill that could help people from being evicted?
ARNOLD: Well, there's $25 billion for rental assistance. We haven't seen that before. And that goes to states and cities. Renters apply, the money goes to the landlords. And the money is supposed to go to people who need it the most based on recent income. The bill also extends unemployment benefits. And 12 million Americans are set to lose those unemployment benefits the day after Christmas. That would just be a colossal disaster. So avoiding that prevents a lot of evictions, too.
I talked to Christina Rosales with Texas Housers. It's a low-income housing nonprofit. And it's in Texas, where we've seen thousands of evictions happening already. She says this bill is a big help.
CHRISTINA ROSALES: It will provide relief to millions of people who've been struggling to pay rent. Tenants can qualify for up to 15 months of rental assistance. So tenants who are behind six, seven, eight, nine months of rent could be covered by what's in this bill.
ARNOLD: She also says that $25 billion is not going to be enough. That's going to need to be replenished. But, you know, it's a good start. Also, there's a question mark. How long will this take to get up and running? And that's going to depend a lot on the state and the city.
KING: Now, this bill, as I understand it, also extends an order from the CDC that's supposed to prevent evictions because that is a bad thing to happen during a pandemic. But it only extends it for a month, through the end of January. Is that really going to help?
ARNOLD: Yeah, I think the hope from the housing advocates here is that once the Biden administration gets in, that this will get extended further into the future and also strengthened because the CDC order's a little flimsy, and it's not working in a lot of places. People are still getting evicted. The CDC could also extend this by itself. It doesn't need another act of Congress.
Also, interestingly, the rules of the rental assistance program appear to require that the renter is still in the property, has not been evicted yet. So that creates a pretty powerful incentive not to kick people out. If I'm a landlord and I'm owed five months of back rent, that's a strong incentive to keep the person there.
So you put all of this together, it's a pretty powerful package that should help a lot of people.
KING: You've been talking to people who are at risk of eviction or who are going to owe a lot of back rent. Tell me what you've been hearing.
ARNOLD: Well, I talked to one person in Seattle who, after losing her job as a hairstylist, owes $10,000 in back rent.
ANA BRAXTON: It's definitely a relief for me.
ARNOLD: That's Ana Braxton (ph). Her husband also had his hours cut back. And they've got two kids.
BRAXTON: I mean, obviously, the timing is significant just because it is Christmas this week. So I would say just being able to be like, OK, like, we can still get certain things for Christmas. We can do this. We'll still be OK. We're still going to be afloat.
KING: And what about landlords who haven't been getting rent money? How are they reacting?
ARNOLD: Well, landlords have been complaining throughout the pandemic that, look; there are these various eviction moratoriums, but who's going to pay the rent if the tenant's not paying the rent? Well, now there's $25 billion to pay the rent. And landlord groups that I talked to are very happy about that. The bill, though, as we've been reporting, has hit this last-minute snag, that the president's been attacking it. So we're just going to have to see what happens there.
KING: For sure. NPR's Chris Arnold. Thanks, Chris. We appreciate it.
ARNOLD: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.