Throughout Los Angeles and in most of America, apartment renters and landlords are having difficult conversations these days as the rent comes due. With the coronavirus wreaking havoc on our economy and unemployment filings surging, many renters simply do not have enough money available to cover the month’s rent.
The situation is perilous, especially when considering that approximately 40 percent of middle-class Americans are one missed paycheck away from poverty, according to a study released last year by the economic advocacy group Prosperity Now. The study found that millions of Americans are … “without money socked away to cope with even a sudden disruption in income.”
The $2 trillion emergency spending measure approved by Congress in late March will provide welcome relief to millions facing mounting bills and lost income, but it falls short of covering most rent payments for Americans who are facing worsening financial distress.
As the COVID-19 economic devastation grows, it is vital that our leaders in government take two actions to create a temporary housing safety net for Americans: deliver eviction protection for at least two months until the future of the pandemic’s arc is more clearly understood, and create clear and consistent policies to avoid a wave of possible foreclosures on property owners who are unable to pay their mortgages due to plummeting rental income.
Two weeks ago, Governor Gavin Newsom demonstrated national leadership by issuing a temporary ban on evictions in California – providing a financial lifeline until May 31 for residents affected by the novel coronavirus. A handful of other governors and the federal government have instituted similar policies to stay evictions from between 60 and 120 days.
While we must avoid a potential tsunami of evictions that would devastate American families and promote the coronavirus spread, we must also protect the property owners being deprived of the incomes they need to stay afloat. After all, many landlords are small businesspeople themselves who depend on rental income to provide for their families and employ other workers in their communities.
Polices to protect landlords against foreclosures can take various forms, including deferred mortgage payments (already adopted by some lenders), property tax abatement, utility cost relief, and partial loan forgiveness. While mandated eviction moratoriums allow renters to defer payment, they are likely to result eventually in higher write-offs by landlords, for which there is currently no direct offset.
The current housing crisis was years in the making. Even before the pandemic, America faced a severe workforce housing crisis, with at least half the nation’s 44 million renter households experiencing affordability challenges. A stark mismatch in supply and demand already existed, particularly for workforce housing designed for middle-income earners. Housing supply has been severely constrained by the prohibitively high cost of new development, while renter demand is projected to grow by more than 5 million households over the next decade.
Without factoring in the historic economic slowdown of the past several weeks, renters’ incomes were not keeping pace with surging housing costs. Now, the disparity has almost certainly grown into a chasm. Rent increases have been exceeding overall inflation, with the highest increases in markets that up until February had experienced the strongest employment growth.
These imbalanced trendlines are not sustainable, as evidenced by historically high asking rents and the fact that nearly one in two renter households spends over 30% of their income on rent (compared to one in four renters in 1960), and approximately one in four renters spends over half their income on rent.
The current and contemplated eviction protection policies are not a panacea for the country’s workforce housing crisis; renters would eventually need to cover the rent they owe. And Governor Newsom’s directive does not apply to renters who are still employed and not impacted by the pandemic. Even so, it is a necessary short-term insurance policy that will enable millions of Californians to at least have a roof over their heads as they face this painful crisis.
While well-intentioned, the patchwork of polices governing the length of eviction moratoriums and the circumstances under which renters can qualify will be met with mass confusion. The same holds true for property owners facing inconsistent policies and programs at the federal level.
Setting up a single, 24/7 telephone hotline and informational website with details specific to each location and situation would be enormously helpful for both renters and landlords. At the same time, government leaders at the federal, state and local levels who have not yet acted to protect renters and landlords should quickly evaluate the programs that best fit their areas and enact clear and uniform policies.
Attending to this unexpected crisis is an immediate and urgent moral priority. By responding with intelligence and foresight in California and nationwide, we can also provide vital momentum toward permanent and comprehensive solutions for the nation’s affordable workforce housing shortage that has been decades in the making and only growing worse.
Bobby Turner is CEO of Santa Monica-based Turner Impact Capital, one of the nation’s largest and fastest growing social impact investment firms.