Congress Addresses Housing Crunch Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

WASHINGTON — Congress’s $2.2 trillion stabilization package headed for likely final passage on Friday will allocate more than $12 billion in funding for federal housing and rental assistance, a belated recognition that Americans cannot shelter in place from the coronavirus if they have no shelter.

The pandemic is hitting hardest in some of the most expensive housing markets in the country — New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles — where governments were struggling with homelessness and affordable shelter long before the virus reached American shores. As businesses are ordered to close and employers lay off workers, Americans, especially low-income renters and the homeless, will feel squeezed even tighter.

The package, which cleared the Senate late Wednesday, includes over $2 billion for rental assistance and $685 million for public housing. It contains flexible funding for state and local governments, which can be used to address housing needs. It also has housing assistance for especially vulnerable groups, such as older adults, people with disabilities and people with AIDS.

The bill will impose a temporary moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for homeowners and renters living in federally subsidized apartments and homes with federally backed mortgages.

“We’re really grateful that our delegation and others were able to get a bill package together that I would describe as short-term relief,” said Gregory Russ, the chairman of the New York City Housing Authority. “But,” he added, “we are under no illusions that there will not be a need for more.”

The economic crisis precipitated by the coronavirus has hit hard in high-cost urban areas where many residents were already struggling to afford homes. About 11 million of the nation’s roughly 44 million renters were paying half their incomes in rent before the pandemic, said Mary Cunningham, the vice president for metropolitan housing at the Urban Institute. With 3.3 million people filing for unemployment compensation last week, many of them have no income at all.

The funding in the package is considerable. But administering it will be a challenge. Doug Guthrie, the president of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, said the agency’s employees, like many others still at work, were struggling with school closings and underlying health issues and advanced ages that put them at risk of infection.

“We are trying to get as many as possible set up for telecommuting, but there are great gaps in the services we can provide,” Mr. Guthrie said.

Likewise, homeless shelters, which were overcrowded before the pandemic, are scrambling to increase the space between beds to comply with quarantine guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The economic stabilization bill includes $4 billion in homeless assistance grants that can be used for temporary emergency shelters, such as hotels and motels, and for personal protective equipment.

But three researchers at the University of Pennsylvania estimated that it would cost more than $11 billion for units needed to manage the coronavirus pandemic for homeless people. In the absence of those resources, the homeless are at risk of getting sick and spreading the virus.

“This will help significantly, but it won’t completely meet the need by any means,” said Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “The bottom line is that this crisis makes very clear how essential housing is not only to the homeless but to the broader community.”

People who have houses backed by federally financed mortgages will get a temporary moratorium on foreclosures, and most residents and renters of federally subsidized apartments will be protected from evictions.

Those protections will be important for some, Ms. Cunningham said. But, she added, “eventually the rent is going to be due, so people will need assistance paying that back rent, and landlords need to get paid in order to pay their own mortgages and operating costs.”

The package also includes $50 million for housing for older adults, $15 million for people with disabilities, $65 million for people with AIDS and $300 million for tribal groups. There is also $2.5 million for fair housing enforcement.

The stimulus package comes after the Federal Housing Administration, which is part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, put in place a 60-day moratorium on foreclosures and evictions for 8.1 million owners of single-family homes who have mortgages backed by the office.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency said it would do the same for the 28 million owners of single-family homes with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The Agriculture Department followed suit for several of the rural housing properties it manages, but the package does not include funding for the department’s rural housing programs.

Until now, housing has been an issue that has been notably absent from the discussion of dislocations caused by the pandemic. Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, was named to the White House’s coronavirus task force, but despite being the only physician in President Trump’s cabinet, he has been largely silent.

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