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Federal Aid to Renters Moves Slowly, Leaving Many at Risk

WASHINGTON — Four months after Congress approved tens of billions of dollars in emergency rental aid, only a small portion has reached landlords and tenants, and in many places it is impossible even to file an application.

The program requires hundreds of state and local governments to devise and carry out their own plans, and some have been slow to begin. But the pace is hindered mostly by the sheer complexity of the task: starting a huge pop-up program that reaches millions of tenants, verifies their debts and wins over landlords whose interests are not always the same as their renters’.

The money at stake is vast. Congress approved $25 billion in December and added more than $20 billion in March. The sum the federal government now has for emergency rental aid, $46.5 billion, rivals the annual budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Experts say careful preparation may improve results; it takes time to find the neediest tenants and ensure payment accuracy. But with 1 in 7 renters reporting that they are behind on payments, the longer it takes to distribute the money, the more landlords suffer destabilizing losses, and tenants risk eviction.

scheduled to expire in June.

“I’m impressed with the amount of work that unsung public servants are doing to set up these programs, but it is problematic that more money isn’t getting out the door,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor at New York University who is studying the effort. “There are downstream effects if small landlords can’t keep up their buildings, and you want to reach families when they first hit a crisis so their problems don’t compound.”

Estimates of unpaid rents vary greatly, from $8 billion to $53 billion, with the sums that Congress has approved at the high end of the range.

The situation illustrates the patchwork nature of the American safety net. Food, cash, health care and other types of aid flow through separate programs. Each has its own mix of federal, state and local control, leading to great geographic variation.

programs with discretionary money from the CARES Act, passed in March 2020. These efforts disbursed $4.5 billion in what amounted to a practice run for the effort now underway with 10 times the money.

Lessons cited include the need to reach out to the poorest tenants to let them know aid is available. Technology often posed barriers: Renters had to apply online, and many lacked computers or internet access.

nearly 1 renter household in 5 reported being behind on payments.

The national effort, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, is run by the Treasury Department. It allocates money to states and also to cities and counties with populations of at least 200,000 that want to run their own programs. About 110 cities and 227 counties have chosen to do so.

The program offers up to 12 months of rent and utilities to low-income tenants economically harmed by the pandemic, with priority on households with less than half the area’s median income — typically about $34,000 a year. Federal law does not deny the aid to undocumented immigrants, though a few states and counties do.

Modern assistance seems to demand a mix of Jacob Riis and Bill Gates — outreach to the marginalized and help with software. Progress slowed for a month when the Biden administration canceled guidance issued under President Donald J. Trump and developed rules that require less documentation.

Other reasons for slow starts vary. Progressive state legislators in New York spent months debating the best way to protect the neediest tenants. Conservatives legislators in South Carolina were less focused on the issue. But the result was largely the same: Neither legislature passed its program until April, and neither state is yet accepting applications.

“I just don’t know why there hasn’t been more of a sense of urgency,” said Sue Berkowitz, the director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “We’ve been hearing nonstop from people worried about eviction.”

committee in the state House of Representatives found that after 45 days, the program had paid just 250 households.

By contrast, a program jointly run by the city of Houston and Harris County had spent about a quarter of its money and assisted nearly 10,000 households.

Not everyone is troubled by the pace. “Getting the money out fast isn’t necessarily the goal here, especially when we focus on making sure the money reaches the most vulnerable people,” said Diane Yentel, the director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

2018 study found the area had the country’s highest eviction rate. Charleston County ran three rounds of rental relief with CARES Act money, and the state ran two.

The second state program, started with $25 million in February, drew so many applications that it closed in six days. But South Carolina is still processing those requests as it decides how to distribute the new federal funds.

Antonette Worke is among the applicants awaiting an answer. She moved to Charleston from Denver last year, drawn by cheaper rents, warmer weather and a job offer. But the job fell through, and her landlord filed for eviction.

Ms. Worke, who has kidney and liver disease, is temporarily protected by the federal eviction moratorium. But it does not cover tenants whose leases expire, as hers will at the end of next month. Her landlord said he would force her to move, even if the state paid the $5,000 in overdue rent.

Still, she said the help was important: A clean slate would make it easier to rent a new apartment and relieve her of an impossible debt. “I’m stressing over it to the point where I’ve made myself sicker,” she said.

Moving faster than the state, Charleston County started its $12 million program two weeks ago, and workers have taken computers to farmers’ markets, community centers and a mall parking lot. Christine DuRant, a deputy county administrator, said the aid was needed to prevent foreclosures that could reduce the housing stock. But critics would pounce if the program sent payments to people who do not qualify, she said: “We will be audited,” possibly three times.

Latoya Green is caught where the desire for speed and accounting collide. A clerk who lost hours in the pandemic, she owes $3,700 in rent and utilities and is protected by the eviction moratorium only until her lease expires next month.

She applied for help on the day the county program started but has not completed the application. She said she is unsettled by the emails requesting her lease, which she lacks, and proof of lost income.

Still, Ms. Green does not criticize Charleston County officials. “I think they’re trying their best,” she said. “A lot of people run scams.”

With time running short, she added: “I just hope and pray to God they’ll be able to assist me.”

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Biden’s Spending Plans Could Start to Tackle Inequality

The coronavirus pandemic has threatened to rapidly expand yawning gaps between the rich and the poor, throwing lower-earning service workers out of jobs, costing them income, and limiting their ability to build wealth. But by betting on big government spending to pull the economy back from the brink, United States policymakers could limit that fallout.

The $1.9 trillion economic aid package President Biden signed into law last month includes a wide range of programs with the potential to help poor and middle-class Americans to supplement lost income and save money going forward. That includes monthly payments to parents, relief for renters and help with student loans.

Now, the administration is rolling out additional plans that would go even further, including a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package and about $1.5 trillion in spending and tax credits to support the labor force by investing in child care, paid leave, universal prekindergarten and free community college. The measures are explicitly meant to help left-behind workers and communities of color who have faced systemic racism and entrenched disadvantages — and they would be funded, in part, by taxes on the rich.

Forecasters predict that the government spending — even just what has been passed so far — will fuel what could be the fastest annual economic growth in a generation this year and next, as the country recovers and the economy reopens from the Covid-19 pandemic. By jump-starting the economy from the bottom and middle, the response could make sure the pandemic rebound is more equitable than it would be without a proactive government response, analysts said.

disproportionately hurt women of all races and men of color, she said, “If we tailor the relief to those who are most affected, we are going to be addressing racial and ethnic gaps.”

From its first days, the pandemic set the stage for a K-shaped economy, one in which the rich worked from home without much income disruption as poorer people struggled. Workers in low-paying service jobs were far more likely to lose jobs, and among racial groups, Black people have experienced a much slower labor market rebound than their white counterparts. Globally, the downturn probably put 50 million people who otherwise would have qualified as middle class into lower income levels, based on one recent Pew Research analysis.

But data suggest the U.S. policy response — including relief legislation that passed under the Trump administration last year — has helped to mitigate the pain.

“The CARES Act to the American Rescue plan have helped to support more households than I would have imagined,” Charles Evans, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, told reporters during a call earlier this month, referring to the early 2020 and early 2021 pandemic relief packages.

across the board after slumping early last year, foreclosures have remained low, and household consumption has been shored up by repeated stimulus checks.

While the era has been fraught with uncertainty and people have slipped through the cracks, this downturn looks very different for poorer Americans than the post-financial crisis period. That recession ended in 2009, and America’s wealthiest households recovered precrisis wealth levels by 2012, while it took until 2017 for the poorest to do the same.

income inequality — the gap between how much the poor and the rich earn each year — might soon decline. Lower income inequality could, in theory, lead to lower wealth inequality over time, as households have the wherewithal save more evenly.

start of 2007, the bottom half of the wealth distribution held 2.1 percent of the nation’s riches, compared to 29.7 percent for the top 1 percent. By the start of 2020, the bottom half had 1.8 percent, while the top 1 percent held 31 percent.

Researchers debate whether monetary policy actually worsens wealth divides in the long run — especially since there’s the hairy question of what would have happened had the Fed not acted — but monetary policymakers generally agree that their policies can’t stop a pre-existing trend toward ever-worse wealth inequality.

By offering a more targeted boost from the very start of the recovery, fiscal policy can. Or, at a minimum, it can prevent wealth gaps from deepening so much.

Monetary policy “is naturally trickle-down,” said Joseph Stiglitz, an economist at Columbia and Nobel laureate. “Fiscal policy can work from the bottom and middle up.”

That’s what the Biden administration is gambling on. Paired with packages from December and last April, Congress’s recent package will bring the amount of economic relied that Congress has approved during the pandemic to more than $5 trillion. That dwarfs the amount spent in the last recovery.

The legislation is a mosaic of tax credits, stimulus checks and small business support that could leave families at the lower end of the income and savings distribution with more money in the bank and, if its provisions work as advertised, with a better chance of getting back to work early in the recovery.

There is no guarantee Mr. Biden’s broader economic proposals, totaling about $4 trillion, will clear a narrowly divided Congress. Republicans have balked at his plans and this week offered a counterproposal on infrastructure that is only a fraction the size of what Mr. Biden wants to spend. A bipartisan group of House moderates is pushing the president to finance infrastructure spending through an increased gas tax or something similar, which hits the poor harder than the rich.

Still, the president’s new proposals could have long-term impacts, working to retool workers’ skills and lift communities of color in hopes of putting the economy on more equal footing. The president is set to outline his so-called American Family Plan, which is focused on the work force, before his first address to a joint session of Congress next week.

While details have yet to be finalized, programs like universal prekindergarten, expanded subsidies for child care and a national paid leave program would be paid for partly by raising taxes on investors and rich Americans. That could also affect the wealth distribution, shuffling savings from the rich to the poor.

The plan, which must win support in a Congress where Democrats have just a narrow margin, would raise the top marginal income tax rate to 39.6 percent from 37 percent, and raise taxes on capital gains — the proceeds of selling an asset, like a stock — for people making more than $1 million to 39.6 percent from 20 percent. Counting in an Obamacare-related tax, the taxes they pay on profits would rise above 43 percent.

The new policies won’t necessarily cut wealth inequality, which has been on an inexorable upward march for decades, but they could keep poorer households from falling behind by as much as they would have otherwise.

Betting big on fiscal policy to return the economy to strength is a gamble. If the economy overheats, as some prominent economists have warned it could, the Fed might have to rapidly lift interest rates to cool things down. Rapid adjustments have historically caused recessions, which consistently throw vulnerable groups out of jobs first.

But administration officials have repeatedly said the bigger risk is underdoing it, leaving millions on the labor market’s sidelines to struggle through another tepid recovery. And they say the spending provisions in both the rescue package and the infrastructure could help to fix longstanding divides along racial and gender lines.

“We think of investment in racial equity, and equity in general, as good policy, period, and integral to all the work we do,” Catherine Lhamon, a deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council, said in an interview.

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New proposal would ban most foreclosures until 2022.

A wave of foreclosures and evictions threatens to arrive when pandemic-related pauses expire later this year, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is considering restrictions on mortgage servicers that would spread the hit into 2022.

More than 3 million households are behind on their mortgage payments, and nearly 1.7 million will run out their forbearance periods in September, according to the bureau.

“We are at really an unusual point in history,” said Diane Thompson, a senior adviser at the bureau. “I don’t think anybody has ever before seen this many mortgages in forbearance at one time that are expected to exit at one time.”

So the bureau has come up with a proposal to ensure that homeowners don’t go straight from forbearance to foreclosure.

proposed a new rule that would prevent servicers from starting foreclosure proceedings until after Dec. 31. The intent, bureau officials said, is to give borrowers coming off forbearance time to consider their options, such as whether they need a mortgage modification to reduce their monthly payments. The restriction would apply only to mortgages on homes used as primary residences.

The agency also proposed a rule change that would allow servicers to extend loan modification offers to borrowers experiencing a Covid-related hardship without undertaking the full review normally required to adjust a mortgage. The intention is to let lenders quickly offer borrowers more affordable terms, so long as the change does not increase the borrower’s monthly payment or extend the loan’s term by more than 40 years.

The consumer bureau is seeking public comment on its proposals, a required step in the rule-making process that will allow industry groups a chance to raise concerns about the changes.

The Mortgage Bankers Association, a housing industry trade group, did not immediately comment on Monday.

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