Housing activists push lawmakers for swift action on rental assistance

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WASHINGTON, June 10 (UPI) -- Affordable-housing activists warned lawmakers Wednesday of a looming rent crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and called on Congress to act swiftly to provide billions of dollars to help millions of Americans.

The activists told the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance that if legislators fail to act, the country will experience increased homelessness and housing instability, especially in communities of color, which have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

"Failure to address the looming rent crisis will have dire consequences for millions of Americans and for a housing ecosystem that underpins our economy," said Mike Kingsella, executive director of the affordable-housing advocacy organization Up for Growth.

The House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act, which includes $100 billion in emergency assistance for low-income renters. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the measure "an 1,800-page liberal wish list" last month and has not scheduled any action on it.

Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said at the hearing she believes the $100 billion in rental assistance can be secured.

Kingsella said emergency rental assistance is "the most urgent action Congress can take" to ensure stability to landlords and tenants as the pandemic persists.

Ann Oliva, a visiting senior fellow at the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said provisions in the HEROES Act include "short-, medium- and longer-term rental assistance options that communities need to form a comprehensive COVID-19 response to a variety of demands."

There are roughly 44 million renter households in the United States, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Before the coronavirus pandemic, 47.5 percent of renter households were spending over 30 percent of their income on rent, according to the center.

"Fifteen million people are living in the renter households where at least one person works in an industry most likely to be affected by COVID 19-related layoffs," Kingsella said, adding that many of these households cannot afford to lose any income.

The $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which was signed into law in late March, enacted a moratorium on evictions due to unpaid rent for 120 days. But Kingsella and the other activists said Congress needs to do more.

Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, said the "moratorium was an important step in the right direction, but it has proved incredibly difficult to implement at the local level and leaves far too many renters out."

Hill added that in Louisiana, the last four digits of a landlord's Social Security number are required to look up a mortgage, so it was difficult for them to check if their landlord was covered by the CARES Act, which only provided protections for a defined group of rental properties.

Oliva also warned of dire consequences of a rent crisis.

"If we do nothing now, we will see increased homelessness and increased housing instability that we will have to deal with down the road."

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