Many low-wage workers and the unemployed are facing mounting rent debts as they struggle with economic fallout of the pandemic
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By Jonnelle Marte
NEW YORK, Aug 6 (Reuters) - Amanda Geno accepted what felt like a dream job offer on March 13 from a college near Holyoke, Massachusetts, putting an end to a six-month search after she was laid off in the fall. Or so she thought.
Three days later, the college told the 39-year-old fundraiser that the promised job would need to be put on hold. At the end of April, she was notified the team she was to join wouldn't be hiring until 2021.
Geno and her wife, a full-time student who receives $900 in monthly disability benefits, have been able to keep paying their nearly $1,200 rent bill and other expenses largely because Geno was among those eligible to receive up to $600 in enhanced weekly unemployment benefits enacted under the CARES Act, the coronavirus aid package passed by Congress in March.
Congress recently let those benefits lapse, cutting her total weekly payments including state benefits from $1,100 after taxes to just shy of $600.
Some of the loan and credit card payments the couple deferred also are coming due this month, adding about $1,600 to their monthly expenses. A tax refund due to arrive this week should help pay the rent for September.
But with much of their savings depleted, Geno isn't sure the rent can be paid after next month.
"I fully feel that without extended help we are going to be under water in probably two months," Geno said.
The job losses caused by nationwide shutdowns imposed in March and April to control the spread of the novel coronavirus disproportionately hit low-wage workers who are more likely to be renters.
A patchwork of eviction moratoriums across the country that vary by state have allowed some renters to stay in their residences if they can't pay the rent, but they are still on the hook for the back rent that is piling up. Americans owed more than $21.5 billion in past-due rent as of the end of July, according to estimates from the global advisory firm Stout, Risius and Ross.
That burden is expected to grow if unemployed workers don't receive more assistance, say housing advocates, economists and landlords.
"This problem is going to grow as the year goes on," said Marietta Rodriguez, president and chief executive of NeighborWorks America, a nonprofit organization focused on affordable housing.
PRESSURE ON CONGRESS TO ACT
Congress, which passed nearly $3 trillion in coronavirus-related aid early in the epidemic, missed a deadline last week to extend the enhanced unemployment payments.
Democrats had pressed for another $3 trillion that would retain the benefit and add nearly $1 trillion in assistance for state and local governments. Senate Republicans have proposed a $1 trillion package that would slash the unemployment payment to $200 a week and eventually move to replace 70% of wages.
Without further action by Congress, more than 30 million Americans receiving unemployment benefits are on track to see their incomes cut in half or more, housing experts and economists say. Benefits in some states are poised to drop to little more than a few hundred dollars a week.
Many households are already feeling the strain. More than 13 million renters, or nearly 20% of renter households, missed rent payments in June, according to a survey last month by the U.S. Census Bureau. About a third of renters said they have slight to no confidence in their ability to make the rent in August, the survey found.
Against that grim backdrop, between 19 million and 23 million Americans are at risk of being evicted by Sept. 30, according to a June analysis by the Aspen Institute.
Evictions could rise after the expiration last month of a moratorium on evictions at rental properties financed with federally-backed mortgages, as well as the winding down of similar measures across the country over the coming weeks and months. In some areas, renters already are being evicted illegally, said Alieza Durana, a journalist with Princeton University's Eviction Lab, which has built a nationwide database of evictions.
Some landlords are advocating for an extension of the weekly unemployment benefits supplement or other financial assistance that can help keep tenants in their homes.
"We're still amidst an emergency across the country," said David Schwartz, chief executive and chairman of Waterton, which owns and operates 23,000 rental units across the country.
Given the surge in unemployment, Schwartz says it would be difficult for those who are out of work to afford their rent, groceries and other bills if the supplement falls below $400. Recent shutdowns caused by a resurgence in COVID-19 cases are creating more uncertainty for households. "I think it's pretty critical that Congress does something," he added.
Jamila King, 31, has been behind on the rent on her apartment in Brooklyn, New York, since April, when the health insurance company she works for cut her hours. While she can work from home, the reduced pay is not enough to cover her rent and other bills, which add up to about $2,000 a month.
Her landlord has been lenient, allowing her to pay about half the rent each month while she looks for a second job or waits for her employer to give her more hours.
In the meantime, King ended her cable television subscription and is hoping to receive financial assistance to pay her three months of back rent. "I feel like I got knocked so many steps back due to COVID," she said. (Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)
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