Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 11, 2020

‘I’m trying the best I can’

Renters out of work due to pandemic face homelessness, increased virus risk

“It’s important for people to know there’s no shame in needing some help, especially this year,” Legal Aid attorney Kerry Dietz says. “Many people are finding they need help this year through no fault of their own.” - Photo by Alex Menendez | AP

The end of 2020 can’t come soon enough for most people, but some aren’t quite ready to say goodbye.

For them, a federal eviction moratorium that expires Dec. 31 is all that’s keeping them in their apartments. The moratorium, which doesn’t cover all renters and doesn’t stop all evictions, doesn’t erase back rent and fees, but it means there are roofs over people’s heads, at least till Dec. 31.

Come January, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen. It’s likely that court filings that precede evictions will rise if nothing replaces the moratorium, which the Centers for Disease Control originated in September to help prevent coronavirus from spreading.

In Nashville, Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District, 23% of renter households – or about 29,900 – are severely burdened by the cost of housing, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports. A household is severely burdened if it spends more than half of its income on housing costs, including utilities, it states.

In Tennessee’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Knoxville, about 24% of its rental households, or more than 21,800, are severely burdened.

“It’s a scary prospect,” says Tennessee Rep. Jesse Chism, a Memphis Democrat elected to the state Legislature in 2018 and a real estate investor himself. “In January, with the moratorium expiring, we have the possibility of so many tenants being put out on the street.’’

Also, there’s a whole group of landlords who cannot pay their mortgages, “mom-and-pop landlords” in his words, who own 10 to 15 rental properties. They’re falling behind on the mortgages on their rental properties because their tenants lost their jobs and can’t pay them.

“People on both sides are hurting due to this pandemic,” he adds. “There’s not a playbook to show what direction to go in. Everyone is trying to make a good guess.”

The pandemic’s financial reach has been broad.

“Before the pandemic, the majority of our clients were either housed in public housing or had a housing voucher that helped them pay market rent,” says Holly Fuller, managing attorney for the Knoxville and Maryville offices of Legal Aid of East Tennessee.

“After the pandemic, a new layer of client arrived when the employment landscape drastically changed. People who had never missed a rental payment suddenly faced the inability to make their payments when their jobs shuttered and a delay in unemployment payments happened.”

Governmental responses to possible foreclosures remain a work in progress, especially since multiple agencies deal with housing. There are signs that officials recognize the situation as serious, and what the incoming Biden administration will do remains to be seen.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) last week extended its own moratorium on foreclosures and evictions one month, through Jan. 31. The FHFA oversees federal housing enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It also supervises the Federal Home Loan Bank System (FHLBanks) and other related offices. The FHFA was created during the financial crisis of 2008.

Its moratorium applies to mortgages on single-family homes that are backed by Freddie Mae or Fannie Mac. More than 28 million homeowners have such mortgages, and it’s not known how many are in default. The moratorium also temporarily ends evictions of tenants who live in single family homes that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac own, known as REO properties.

Loss of a home affects not only family finances, but also health. A study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Boston University, University of California-Los Angeles and other institutions attributed more than 400,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 10,000 deaths to the lifting of state moratoriums on eviction during the pandemic.

Eviction could push people into “more congregate living conditions, doubling up with other family members,” says Kerry Dietz, a Nashville housing and consumer attorney who practices law with the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands.

COVID-19 is more likely to spread in higher-density living arrangements than lower-density, she adds. She and many others anticipate that the number of eviction-related court filings will rise in January, assuming the moratorium ends without replacement.

“January is the cruelest month, with the worst weather, probably the worst spread of COVID and the worst time for evictions,” says U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, whose district includes Nashville. At best, he says, eviction is “a huge inconvenience to move your stuff out. … No one chooses eviction, to have your stuff moved out on the sidewalk.”

At worst, eviction will make some people homeless, and Nashville already has a terrible homelessness problem, the Nashville Democrat says, adding landlords themselves almost uniformly say they don’t want to evict people.

One tenant, who asked that his name not be used, says the moratorium has enabled, he, his wife and their teenage child to stay in their two-bedroom apartment as he pays down back rent.

When 2020 started, he had cobbled together different jobs to make ends meet. One position ended because of the March tornadoes, and other jobs that catered to Nashville tourists also ended that month due to coronavirus.

The pandemic, he says, “was a curve we didn’t anticipate. ... I’m trying to stay positive and be as diligent as I can. The thought of being homeless really scares me. I’m trying the best I can.”

Landlords are, too, says an organization representing owners of rental property.

Over the past nine months, rental housing providers across the country have worked with tenants to keep them housed, says Greg Brown, senior vice president for government affairs with the National Apartment Association.

Property owners “have developed payment plans, waived fees and charges, facilitated access to public services and even created their own rental assistance programs,” Brown explains.

But now, Brown says, the industry is at a breaking point. Housing providers can no longer afford to solely carry the financial burden of housing the nation’s 40 million renters alongside the projected $70 billion in rental debt. Moreover, the apartment market is a $3.4 trillion industry that supports 17.5 million jobs.

“Rental housing is a low-margin business, and all but nine cents of each rental dollar go to operational expenses like the mortgage, payroll for on-site staff and taxes. Rent is the fuel that keeps rental housing operational,” he adds. “Without significant direct rental assistance from the federal government to help residents pay their rent and owners pay operating bills, properties may be forced into sale or foreclosure and leave the rental market entirely.”

“The answer is for Congress and the administration to provide adequate financial support to those who cannot pay their rent,” Brown continues.

After passage of the CARES Act in March, however, further federal coronavirus relief hasn’t materialized and efforts to keep people housed have been decentralized, administered through state and local government. The CARES Act authorized more than $2 trillion in economic relief. According to the state’s Stimulus Fund Dashboard, Tennessee has received nearly $14.8 billion in stimulus funding related to COVID-19.

Efforts to prevent evictions and keep people housed have been decentralized during the pandemic, with the NLIHC listing about 450 state and local government eviction-prevention programs across the country.

“The needs are overwhelming” compared to available resources to prevent evictions, notes Sarah Saadian, NLIHC’s vice president of public policy. Some local rental assistance programs ran out of funding in 90 minutes, she adds. “State and local governments cannot address this on their own. It really falls on Congress to pass a relief package.”

Meanwhile, all levels of government struggle to help tenants who can’t pay their rent because of the pandemic.

In Nashville’s subsidized housing units, which shelter about 30,000 people in 13,000 households, people are facing hard times from coronavirus, even though their rent is based on a percentage of their income. The Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency put a halt on evictions in September and didn’t require tenants to sign statements that they couldn’t pay.

Local governments are investigating several avenues of housing assistance, as are officials in state government. State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, serves on Gov. Bill Lee’s Financial Stimulus Accountability Group.

Akbari says she is “urging Gov. Lee and members of the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group to inject more federal CARES Act funding into mortgage and rental assistance.” She didn’t specify an amount. She also noted: “On a productive call (last week), there appeared to be understanding about the magnitude of this issue.”

“The economy cannot recover as long as the virus is spreading like this because you can’t have a healthy economy without healthy workers,” Akbari adds.

Another possible source of rent aid is the state’s more than $730 million in unspent funds from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, administered through the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

Research from the Urban Institute indicates it’s possible to use TANF funds for emergency rental assistance under what it calls the program’s “flexible federals pending guidelines.”

“States should assess their TANF funds, especially nonrecurrent, short-term benefits and any accumulated reserves, to make new commitments to spending on emergency rental assistance and eviction prevention,” Institute researchers said in an article published in October.

Attempts to obtain comments from the Lee administration on use of TANF funds or other relief for renters were unsuccessful. Last month, the Tennessean reported that Adam Kleinheider, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, said McNally would introduce “innovative” proposals on the use of TANF funds in the Legislature in January. As of Dec. 7, no bills had been filed on the funds.

Talks on possible relief measures continue at the federal level.

Recently, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn talked about the need to help the many Tennesseans who have lost their jobs and income in the pandemic through no fault of their own. She said she supported a proposal from Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for about $430 billion in additional pandemic relief that would help the unemployed and small businesses. It would also pay for vaccinations but didn’t include specific amounts for rent assistance.

“Tenant relief is the most urgent concern,” Cooper says. “Congress needs to pass, before Christmas, a huge relief package, the bigger the better.” He said the House of Representatives has passed two relief bills since the initial CARES Act but the Senate hadn’t acted to pass its own bill that could then go to committee, where compromises could be reached.

NLIHC’s Saadian says an eviction crisis can be prevented with two major tools:

• Extend and strengthen the federal eviction moratorium while closing loopholes that permit many evictions to continue

• Inject billions of dollars in emergency rental assistance for those in need.

In the longer term, the country needs to repair and strengthen its safety-net programs, she continues. Even in the absence of a pandemic, 8 million households with the very lowest incomes are paying 50% or more of their incomes on rent. They’re living right on the edge of eviction, she adds, at which any unexpected expense – a car repair, caring for a sick child or missing hours at work – could cause people to get behind on their rent.

“We aren’t investing at the level needed to build additional homes and apartments that the lowest income people can afford,” she says.

There’s a point at which it’s not profitable for builders to build and operate housing that the lowest-income people can afford, she adds.

Federal subsidies are needed and Congress hasn’t acted to provide resources.

Meanwhile, work continues on ways to stave off possible evictions.

“It’s important for people to know there’s no shame in needing some help, especially this year,” Legal Aid attorney Dietz notes. “Many people are finding they need help this year through no fault of their own.”

People should seek help “sooner rather than later,” she adds. “I can do a lot more with a case I get two months before court than two days before.”

Chism, the state legislator, is optimistic. He says he believes we’ll emerge from the pandemic stronger than we were going in. “It’s going to take a few years. It will take patience and sacrifice.”