Rollins and Yentel: Congress must provide emergency rental assistance

The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic threatens to significantly exacerbate housing instability and homelessness throughout the U.S., including in Utah. Congress must take bold action to help people already struggling to make ends meet by including emergency rental assistance in the next coronavirus-response package.

Even before coronavirus, far too many of America’s lowest-income households — seniors, people with disabilities, low-wage workers — were just one financial shock away from falling behind on their rent and threatened with eviction, and in worst cases, homelessness. With too many renters living paycheck-to-paycheck, a broken-down car, a sick child or missed days at work can put someone at imminent risk of losing their home.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, nearly 11 million households — primarily renters with low incomes — pay more than half of their limited incomes on rent, leaving very little for other basic needs such as groceries, childcare or medicines. Affordable housing was already out of reach for millions of people, and the economic disruption they are currently experiencing because of coronavirus adds to the many nearly insurmountable challenges low-income renters were already trying to navigate. They are at extreme risk of joining the more than half a million people who on any given night in America have no home at all, unable to “shelter in place.”

Before coronavirus, there were only 31 rental homes affordable and available for every 100 of the lowest-income renter households in Utah. Working at the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in Utah, a wage earner needed to work 2.1 full-time jobs, or 81 hours per week, to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment. They must work 2.5 full-time jobs, or work 101 hours per week, to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Unless Congress acts immediately to provide emergency rental assistance, millions of low-wage workers who have lost their jobs or seen a reduction of hours will have a catastrophic experience during the recovery of our nation. Without our workers we will not have an economy.

The CARES Act was an important first step, but did not provide the resources needed to prevent low-income renters from losing their homes. An unprecedented 126,000 Utahans have applied for unemployment insurance benefits, but many do not qualify. And for those who do receive unemployment insurance, the benefits are often insufficient to relieve the cost burdens including housing of the lowest-income households.

For far too long, Congress has underfunded critical, income-targeted programs such as the National Housing Trust Fund, Housing Choice Vouchers and programs to repair public housing, worsening the nation’s affordable housing crisis. They must act now to mitigate the economic shock millions of Americans are currently facing due to coronavirus. NLIHC estimates that $703 million in emergency rental assistance is needed in Utah to keep families stably housed.

It is not just housing advocates calling for emergency rental assistance. Leaders in health, education, hunger, faith, civil rights, environmental protection and others are calling for the same thing. Groups such as the National Education Association, National League of Cities, National Association of Community Health Centers National Alliance on Mental Illness, and many more, understand that stable housing is the foundation to one’s wellbeing and is desperately needed now.

At a time when our collective health depends on people’s ability to stay at home, it has never been clearer that housing is health care. Without emergency rental assistance, we will likely see even more people become homeless or be forced to double or triple up with other families. Overcrowding of households, sleeping in congregate shelters and living outside under the elements all lead to increased infections. Lives are at risk.

At least $100 billion is needed nationally. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Denny Heck, D-Wash., more than 135 original cosponsors in the House and more than 30 original cosponsors in the Senate recently introduced the Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act to invest that level of funding for such emergency rental assistance. Congress must support this important bill and ensure it is included in the next coronavirus-response package.

During this pandemic, the very least Congress must do is ensure that everyone is stably housed. This is not just an economic necessity, but a moral and health imperative. We must protect those who are most at risk during this pandemic.

The Utah Housing Coalition is a statewide membership based organization supporting and advocating housing people can afford in Utah.

Tara Rollins is executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition.

Diane Yentel is president & CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.