Crisis Within a Crisis

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

The public health crisis that is the Covid-19 pandemic affects everyone, but the impacts are not equal nor are they consistent. The impacts are most keenly felt among low and moderate income families and households. This has been true when it comes to low-wage employment, and no amount of recasting store clerks as heroes will make the risk of becoming ill with the virus go down any easier.

However, the crisis that is brewing within the crisis that is Covid-19 will be the one that hits renters when this mess is over. In a community that has upwards of 60 percent rental properties, the impact on renters is always in the back of my mind. It takes on even greater urgency given some of the reporting that’s underway on the issue. A new study done by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University seeks to measure just what renters are up against.

Over 20 percent of households earning $25,000 or less are behind on their rent while roughly 16 percent of those earning between $25,000 and $50,000 are behind. The number drops slightly for those earning between $50k and $75k (9 percent). But this assumes people are actually employed and earning wages, as opposed to those not working at all.

Recently, I heard about a Federal Reserve Study that estimates Americans owe some $7.2 billion in unpaid rent. This amount, according to the study, comes as a result of some 1.34 million households being behind on rent to the tune of roughly $5,400 per renter household due to less hours or job loss from the pandemic, which is approximately 4.2 percent of all renter households nationwide.

This number of 4.2 percent doesn’t sound all that bad unless you’re one of the households behind or living in a community that has an abundance of rentals as we do. This is why the actions taken by Congress in the next few weeks will be critical in determining how many ultimately sink and how many might be able to keep their heads above water.

There’s another side to the issue that bears mentioning and it is simply that there are a certain percentage of renter households, however small they may be, who are behind not because they can’t pay rent but because they decided not to with a moratorium on evictions in place. Among this group are those who could pay without much struggle and those for whom paying might be tight, but they could still pay or at least pay something but don’t.

This is the crowd who lives for the moment and the short term and figure they will deal with the fallout when it comes. I mention them because not all of those who will be facing eviction when it comes will be victims. It’s not just renters who are impacted, but landlords as well. They are part of what makes local economies run and their impacts become ours and are felt throughout the local economy and beyond.

Say what you will about how the federal government handled the pandemic response, but it appears that one thing they got right was the extra $600 a week in unemployment insurance payments that expired at the end of July. The study suggests that if those payments had continued through to the present, only 125,000 renter households would be behind in rent.

Perhaps the government should consider how to get help to both tenants and landlords in a way that might include a joint application. For tenants because they do not want the fallout of eviction and for landlords, who simply want their back rents paid. Time is running out.

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Mayoral Musings