Millions facing eviction need money, not moratoriums

President Joe Biden has made a show of trying to rescue millions of American renters, pushing through yet another national eviction ban on what he has admitted are shaky legal grounds. He’s wrong. What struggling families and landlords need is money, not moratoriums.

The economic shock of the pandemic has deepened what was already a troubling U.S. housing crisis. As of mid-July, an estimated 3.6 million households were somewhat or very likely to be evicted in the next two months, according to survey data published by the Census Bureau. Since September of last year, the federal government has responded with a series of moratoriums.

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The Biden administration’s latest version bars evictions of households earning no more than $99,000 a year ($198,000 for joint tax filers) in counties with “heightened levels of community transmission” — meaning some 90% of renters. It expires on Oct. 3.

One problem is that the measure will likely be ruled illegal, as the president has acknowledged. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court indicated that a new national ban would require legislation. Biden’s cavalier disregard of that guidance is surprising and unfortunate.

Perhaps more important, extending the ban fails to address the fundamental problem. Even in normal times, federal housing assistance reaches only a small fraction of households poor enough to qualify for it. The longer eviction bans last, the more the debts build up, all but ensuring a bad outcome. Meanwhile, landlords — particularly the smaller investors who own most of the cheapest units — are denied the cash they need to maintain the properties, further depleting the nation’s stock of affordable housing.

The right solution is to expand federal rental assistance, and fast. Congress has allocated a total of $46 billion to emergency programs covering rent and arrears, typically with direct payments to landlords — but the help is taking far too long to arrive. In the five months through June, only about $3 billion had been disbursed. Many who are eligible don’t know the money is available, and navigating the ill-equipped state and local bureaucracies tasked with delivering it is absurdly difficult.

Ultimately, what’s required is an overhaul of the punitively complex federal-state hybrid system of housing support. But that won’t happen in a matter of weeks. Given the urgency, the Biden administration will have to pull other levers, preferably without breaking the law. Specifically:

— Make applying easier. The Treasury Department has allowed for tenants to request assistance directly (rather than relying on landlords to do so) and attest to income, financial hardship and risk of homelessness without documents. Yet many states and localities haven’t complied.

— Get the word out. Let people know about rental assistance wherever they come into contact with the government. Alert people on housing assistance waiting lists, and when they apply for unemployment benefits. Target neighborhoods with high rates of housing instability.

— Divert eviction cases before they get to court. Philadelphia has created a program that requires tenants and landlords to enter mediation and apply for emergency rental relief before they get to housing court. That’s a good model. Applying it widely would mean that even after the eviction ban expires, people will get help before they’re made homeless or have an eviction added to their record.

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Even the best efforts won’t help everyone, and easing restrictions will admittedly let more money go where it shouldn’t. Even so, it makes sense to help as many of the needy as possible, or else a lot of Americans are going to end up on the street.

— Bloomberg Opinion

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