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The eviction moratorium has been a ‘lifeline’ but always a ‘half-measure’: NLIHC President

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Diane Yentel, President and CEO, National Low Income Housing Coalition, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss implications of the eviction moratorium expiring in October.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: The US government recently extended the nationwide eviction moratorium that will help keep millions of people in their homes, even if they can't pay rent, because of the pandemic. It's bringing both relief for those struggling to pay rent and plenty of concern from landlords, who say they're missing out on money. Joining us now to talk about the impact of the eviction protection is Diane Yentel. She is the CEO of the National Low-Incone Housing Coalition. We're also joined by Yahoo Finance's Dani Romero. Great to have you both here. And Diane, I'm going to start with you. What are you hearing right now from members regarding the kind of help they're able to receive in terms of rental assistance?

DIANE YENTEL: Well, there's a lot of concern. The emergency rental assistance that Congress provided should be enough to cover all the rent and utility arrears that tenants accrued during the pandemic, but the money is getting out much too slowly. As of the end of June, only about $3 billion of the $46.5 billion appropriated had been spent. The number is increasing the month of July was better. Some programs are really ramping up and getting that money out quickly. Many others still lag behind.

And meanwhile, while the eviction moratorium has been extended through early October, there are legal challenges to that moratorium. The US Court of Appeals will likely rule any minute, any day. And then the next step will be the US Supreme Court. And so the challenge is that we may not have until October 3 for the moratorium to remain in place. So there's even more urgency to get that money out quickly. We hear every day-- we get dozens of emails and calls here at the coalition from tenants who have applied for money, who are desperate to receive that money, who are scared they're going to lose their homes if they don't get it in time, but who haven't received that money yet.

DANI ROMERO: And Diane, in a recent study by the Urban Institute, they found that more than half of renters and 40% of landlords are not even aware of this federal assistance. And I know that each state had to come up with their own program in the way that they were going to distribute these funds. Why is there a lag and lack of knowledge?

DIANE YENTEL: Yeah, that's one of the main challenges right now. The way that the emergency rental assistance programs work is the federal government allocates a certain amount to states and cities and counties, and then those states, cities, and counties are responsible for getting that money out. So we're tracking nearly 500 emergency rental assistance programs across the country. Again, some of them are doing really well. Some of them are getting the money out quickly and to the people who need it.

And the fact that some are doing so well make those who aren't all the more glaring and unacceptable. And one of the reasons in some places that we're finding that the money is not getting out is simply that landlords and tenants are not aware that those resources are available, or they don't know what they need to do in order to receive them. So there needs to be much more public education at federal, state, and local levels about the availability of these funds. Another challenge is that some of the communities who have the funds and create the emergency rental assistance programs have made them much too complicated, very long and unnecessarily complicated applications requiring burdensome documentation that many of the lowest-income people simply can't produce. So having such complicated systems is also slowing down the process for everyone.

DANI ROMERO: Yeah. And an eviction moratorium is fine for the short term, but what are we really going to do to help these people in the long term-- I mean on both sides, the tenant and the landlord?

DIANE YENTEL: Right. The eviction moratorium-- it's been essential. It's been a lifeline. It has kept tens of millions of people who otherwise would have lost their homes during a global pandemic stably housed during it. But it's always been a half-measure because the rent is still due, and low-income tenants struggle to pay it and fell behind during the pandemic.

That's why the emergency rental assistance has been so essential for Congress to appropriate, and it's why states and cities need to do more and better and faster to get that money out to the tenants who need it as quickly as possible before the moratorium inevitably expires or ends. But that money, that emergency rental assistance does little to nothing to address the underlying affordable housing crisis that we faced pre-pandemic and during the pandemic and that we'll continue to face after the pandemic. Those same renters who struggled to pay the rent during the pandemic, even after they're caught up on rent, many of them will continue to struggle because housing costs too much for them to be able to afford. So long-term solutions are necessary.

And the good news here is that Congress is currently negotiating a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure and reconciliation package that could include over $300 billion in housing investments. So we have an opportunity now to ensure that those funds are allocated and that they are targeted toward the solutions that keep the lowest-income people safely, accessibly, and affordably housed. Those are the kind of long-term solutions that are needed.

DANI ROMERO: Yeah. And also in your recent report, there was a pretty alarming graph that showed that 56% of renters have had to cut back on food expense. And I know that survey was done specifically in LA County. But as this goes on, will we see more of that?

DIANE YENTEL: We've seen that throughout the pandemic and even before the pandemic. The thing to understand about the crisis that we face now is that before the pandemic, we had a shortage of 7 million homes that were affordable and available to the lowest-income renters. So in other words, same numbers-- for every 10 of the lowest-income renter families, there were fewer than four apartments affordable and available to them.

And because there was such a shortage, you had about 10 million very low, extremely low-income households paying at least half of their very limited income towards rent each month. In order to be able to do that, that means everyday tradeoffs. That means having to forgo store-bought food and having to rely on food pantries instead. It means not being able to pay the internet for the virtual school that their children need. It means borrowing money, using credit cards to pay the rent, all unsustainable solutions.

And again, it's because the gap between what the lowest-income people earn or otherwise bring in is great. And the gap is growing between what they earn and what rent costs. So solutions are needed to make homes affordable for those lowest-income people, solutions like permanent rental assistance for the lowest-income households-- every eligible household should be able to receive longer-term housing subsidies when needed-- and building more apartments and ensuring that we're building them at a level that's affordable to those lowest-income people with the greatest and the clearest needs.

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: All right. Diane Yentel, CEO of National Low-Income Housing Coalition, and our own Dani Romero, thanks so much.