The Pandemic Doesn’t Need to Make the Housing Crisis Worse

Policymakers risk doing more harm than good by pursuing short-sighted policies like rent control as solutions for pandemic-related housing affordability challenges.

By Doug Bibby

Across the country, communities and families are struggling. COVID-19 and the resulting recession continue to take a toll on those trying to make ends meet. Increasingly, this leaves many renters uncertain about making rent. In fact, more than a quarter (27.1%) of renters surveyed by the U.S. Census as part of its most recent Household Pulse Survey indicated they had no or slight confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent.

At a national level, lawmakers took relatively swift action at the beginning of the pandemic to enact the CARES Act, which was largely successful in providing households with the necessary economic support to keep them safely and securely housed. The legislation provided deeper unemployment benefits as well as stimulus checks that reinforced household savings and helped families pay for necessities like food, medicine and rent.

We need more dedicated, long-term renter relief to support our most vulnerable residents and mortgage forbearance protections for those property owners who are also struggling to meet their financial obligations as a result of rent disruptions.

Today, however, many of the CARES Act provisions expired almost two months ago and the financial cushion that it gave families is wearing thin. What’s more, the Trump administration, through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), recently enacted a federal moratorium on evictions, putting the onus on apartment owners and operators to effectively shoulder this systemic financial distress alone.

Rent payments are declining. At press time, the most recent NMHC Rent Payment Tracker data release showed that 2.4% fewer apartment households had made a full or partial rent payment as of September 13 compared to the same period last year. That’s nearly 280,000 more households that are unable to pay rent. Without that rent coming in, many rental housing providers—particularly small owners and operators—are having an increasingly difficult time meeting their own obligations like mortgages, taxes, utilities and payroll.

The cascading effect of these shortfalls imperils the nation’s entire housing finance system at a time when safe and secure housing has never been more important. Moreover, it’s prompting lawmakers to pursue poor housing policies that, while they may provide some near-term salves for struggling households, they will only serve to create greater barriers to more affordable housing long term.

Rent Control Rolls On During the Pandemic

NMHC continues to urge policymakers in Congress and in the administration to come back to the table to work on comprehensive legislation that both supports the nearly 40 million Americans that call an apartment home and protects the country’s multifamily industry. We need more dedicated, long-term renter relief to support our most vulnerable residents and mortgage forbearance protections for those property owners who are also struggling to meet their financial obligations as a result of rent disruptions.

However, the hurdles also continue to grow at the state and local levels, as lawmakers are being confronted with unparalleled challenges. Many parts of the nation were already grappling with a severe housing affordability crisis before the pandemic. The effects of the last six months have only served in many cases to exacerbate the deep-seated, systemic housing problems in many of these localities.

Affordability Challenges Will Outlast the Pandemic

Apartment owners and operators should not be asked to bear the myriad financial costs of housing hundreds of thousands of households. Government intervention is necessary during this crisis to keep people housed and to protect the future viability of the industry. Policymakers must avoid taking a short-sighted approach to dealing with the housing challenges wrought by the pandemic. Instead they should be seeking ways to provide the assistance that is needed to protect renters and property owners alike during these unprecedented times with an eye to the future on how to address our nation’s underlying housing affordability problem.

To create greater housing opportunity, policymakers need to invest in strategies that can expand, diversify and accelerate housing production. Last year, NMHC released its Housing Affordability Toolkit. The toolkit provides analysis of housing affordability challenges across the country and a number of solutions lawmakers can take advantage of to lower rents and build more homes of all types and at a variety of price points.

These include incentives like density bonuses, flexible design standards, right-sized parking requirements or a fast-tracked approvals process—all of which lower the costs to create new housing. Similarly, instead of forcing plans through numerous rounds of discretionary review, cities can put in place systems that clearly lay out the permitted use, type and density of new projects, minimizing the approval timeline. Finally, communities can also consider voluntary inclusionary zoning policies, which require new rental housing developments to include a certain percentage of affordable units. These policies are most effective when paired with incentives such as density bonuses.

There is no single panacea to the housing affordability challenges facing the nation. And, at a time of deep financial distress and uncertainty when it comes to health and safety, we need policy support to keep the most vulnerable in their homes and the nation’s housing industry stable.

Doug Bibby is president of the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC), based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at dbibby@nmhc.org.

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