For renters, an affordable housing crisis was already raging. Then coronavirus hit

Los Angeles is one of the few US jurisdictions that has mandated a grace period for repaying rent missed during the coronavirus lockdown. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For many renters across the United States, access to affordable housing was precarious long before the coronavirus. Now, with millions freshly out of work, an inability to pay rent could amplify an already massive shock to the economy.

The early figures are eye-catching. Just 69% of US apartment renters had paid all or part of this month’s rent by 5 April – down from 82% a month earlier – according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, an apartment industry group. Nearly 17 million Americans filed new unemployment claims in the past three weeks, and job losses hit the service and retail sectors especially hard. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that 10 million low-income US households were paying 50% or more of their income toward rent – and therefore at higher risk of experiencing homelessness – before coronavirus. Now, they estimate 1.5 million more could soon be in the same position.

Like the coronavirus itself, the rent emergency is playing out across borders, too. Residential landlords in the UK reported receiving just 44% of their expected rental income, according to the Financial Times. Canada’s CIBC bank estimates that about 70% of rent was paid in April, and tenant rights activists are organizing a campaign to cancel rent for May. In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced one of the boldest steps taken by a national government so far: promising to waive rent and utility bills for people who can’t pay.

The idea of a rent strike or rent holiday has gained steam in the US in recent weeks as renters point out that many simply don’t have another option: if they don’t have the money, they can’t pay. Landlords are in a jam, too. If they force a tenant out, can they find someone else to move in now? That’s why housing advocates and landlord groups alike are urging the US Congress to move fast to help people pay their rent.

“The good news is there are platforms that already exist” to give money to some of the most vulnerable renters, says Priya Jayachandran, president of the National Housing Trust and a former official at the US Department of Housing & Urban Development. Congress could direct more money “relatively quickly,” she says, to the Section 8 housing voucher programme for low-income tenants, or into other programmes that support housing for elderly or disabled tenants.

Advocates also want Congress to go further to protect renters against the possibility of eviction at a time when staying home is crucial. Federal, state, and local governments across the US were quick to offer at least some protections for renters in late March, as state-of-emergency and shelter-in-place orders went into effect. Congress paused evictions for 120 days for renters who live in homes with federally backed mortgages, a move that protected one in four rental units in the country, according to the Urban Institute. Many state and local governments went further, pausing new eviction filings, banning evictions for people affected by the coronavirus, and directing authorities not to enforce eviction orders until after a state of emergency is lifted.

Still, those steps don’t cover everyone, and they exist as a hugely uneven patchwork of policies that vary widely across jurisdictions. In many places, cash-strapped renters need to prove that coronavirus is the reason they can’t pay rent. They’re also expected to repay that rent once the emergency orders are lifted, possibly even right away.

Los Angeles is one of the few US jurisdictions that has mandated a grace period for repayment, giving renters 12 months to pay back their landlords or allowing them to come to another agreement. For anyone living paycheck-to-paycheck, even that repayment plan could increase monthly housing payments to an impossible level. For renters in cities and states without mandatory repayment periods, housing advocates fear the end of the coronavirus emergency will be the start of an eviction emergency.

“They’re really concerned that there will be an eviction onslaught once eviction orders are lifted,” says Alieza Durana of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

And eviction isn’t a one-time setback. “We call it the ‘Scarlet E,’” Durana says. That’s because an eviction on someone’s record can prevent them from getting housing, jobs, or loans far into the future.

Rent money matters on a larger economic scale, too. A 2015 US Census survey found that about 16.7 million rental properties in the U.S. are owned by individual landlords, accounting for about 46% of all rental units in the country. Many individual property owners live off that money, and large and small landlords alike pass portions of it along to financial institutions, utilities, maintenance workers, and state and local property taxes.

“We’re really hampered by not knowing how long this is going to last,” says Jenny Scheutz, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “The difference between not paying rent for a month or two months and not paying rent for six to eight months is enormous both for the tenant and for the landlord.”

Sheutz agrees that the best solution is to give money directly to households so they can keep making the payments and purchases that they need to.

“Canceling the rent only takes off some of the pressure on renter households,” she says. “They still have other expenses that they need to meet. If you get money to renters, then they can keep spending it, and the landlord gets money and they can keep people on the payroll.”

With the bailout requests flooding in from all sectors, there’s one fact that gives rental assistance a deeper sense of urgency. A housing affordability crisis has been brewing for years, and Americans well into the middle class don’t have much savings to fall back on.

“There’s a lot of financial insecurity among the middle class that we papered over as long as the job market was good,” Scheutz says. “There are a lot of people who looked OK as long as they had a steady source of income, but they really didn’t have much cushion. We’re going to see as a result a lot of people don’t have savings to tide them over.”

For now, Jayachandran advises renters to talk to their landlords immediately if they can’t make their full rent payment, and to sign on to letters to lawmakers advocating for rental assistance.

“Far before this crisis, we failed in our housing policy,” she says. “When you lose that work, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.”

Adam Sneed is managing editor of CityMetric. 


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.