The $1.9 trillion stimulus package that President Joe Biden signed into law Thursday includes close to $50 billion in housing assistance to struggling renters, homeowners and people experiencing homelessness.
The aid included in the American Rescue Plan Act – the third round of housing relief approved in a year – is intended to support the tens of millions of people who are unable to pay for their housing or utilities because of the pandemic.
The plan includes $27 billion in rent relief, $10 billion in mortgage payment relief and $5 billion to address homelessness.
Although this unprecedented amount of aid will provide relief for millions, it still won’t be enough to cover the ongoing need for housing assistance, said Diane Yentel, the president and chief executive officer of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
At the end of February, 13.5 million people said they were behind on their rent – nearly 1 in 5 of all renters – according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of a Census Bureau survey. Renters owe an estimated $57 billion in back rent, according to a Moody’s Analytics report.
There are 2.6 million homeowners currently in a forbearance program, which allows them to delay or defer their payments according to Black Knight. At the end of January, an estimated $19 billion in payments of principal and interest were past due because of the pandemic, the mortgage data company said.
“The combined funding from this bill and the previous bill could address most, if not all, of the arrears,” Yentel said. “But more will be needed for continuing challenges.”
The main source of rent relief in the new law is $21.55 billion in emergency rental assistance. That funding will be added to the $25 billion in aid that already went to states and localities in December to help families pay for rent and utilities and stay in their homes.
Yentel said that, according to her organization’s database that tracks relief, most of the December funds have not reached tenants or their landlords yet. (Direct links to programs offering state and local emergency rental assistance programs across the country can be found at the NLIHC website and other information on rent relief programs can be found at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website.)
But there are other sources of rent relief in the new package that are more targeted. For example, $100 million has been set aside for people living in USDA-subsidized rural properties who are struggling to pay rent.
For the homeless, the act includes $5 billion in emergency housing vouchers. Another $5 billion is earmarked to create socially-distant housing and non-group shelters.
To address the rise in housing challenges over the past year, the plan provides $100 million for housing counseling and $20 million for fair housing organizations.
For those struggling to cover their utility costs, the stimulus package includes $4.5 billion for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and $500 million for low-income water assistance.
Unlike prior stimulus and relief packages, which provided some protections for homeowners but no direct aid, the American Rescue Plan offers $10 billion in direct financial assistance to struggling homeowners.
These funds are designed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure and catch up on mortgage, utility, property tax and insurance payments, said David M. Dworkin, President and CEO of the National Housing Conference.
While the percentage of mortgages in forbearance is coming down – it is now under 5% for the first time since last April, according to Black Knight – there are some 800,000 forbearance plans that will expire by month’s end.
Together with their loan servicers, these homeowners will need to decide whether to come out of forbearance and make a plan for paying back the deferred amount, or request an extension. Most pandemic-related forbearance relief programs are currently set to expire in June. Federal bans on foreclosures are also set to expire in June.
The American Rescue Plan Act also provides $39 million in assistance to low-income households who have become homeowners through certain USDA mortgage programs and have fallen behind on their payments during the pandemic.
What’s not in the bill
Struggling renters that have given their landlord a declaration that they are unable to pay rent and will make their best effort to pay what they can are protected from eviction by the national ban ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that protection is currently set to expire at the end of the month.
Yentel said the eviction moratorium must be extended in order for the billions in relief money yet to be dispersed to have its intended effect of supporting renters who owe back rent.
“There are landlords who are refusing to participate in the program and are watching the clock for three more weeks until they can evict their tenants,” she said.
Yentel said she’d also like to see the ban strengthened and enforced.
“The order is flawed in that there are an alarming number of evictions happening while it is in place,” she said. “Currently the protections are not automatic, we’d like to see that change.’
But landlord groups say the eviction moratorium continues to place an outsized burden on property owners, some of whom have been without rental payments for a year.
There are currently a number of legal challenges to the CDC eviction moratorium. This week, a federal judge in Ohio ruled the CDC overstepped its authority in issuing a nationwide eviction ban, according to court documents. The Department of Justice is appealing a ruling from a federal judge in Texas stating that the federal moratorium on evictions is unconstitutional.
“While the stimulus will go a long way toward addressing economic hardship caused by the pandemic, continuing moratoria on evictions will have serious, negative consequences for the millions of ‘mom and pop’ owners who make up 95% of the single-family rental home industry and have struggled under long-running government rental restrictions and mandates,” said David Howard, executive director of the National Rental Home Council, which represents the single-family rental home industry.