Despite Stimulus, 3 Million Renters Still Face COVID-19 Unemployment in U.S.

Despite Stimulus, 3 Million Renters Still Face COVID-19 Unemployment in U.S.

Residential News » Washington D.C. Edition | By David Barley | January 13, 2021 8:10 AM ET

Zillow research is reporting that despite the recently finalized fiscal stimulus package, millions of U.S. renters who remain unemployed during the COVID-19 pandemic still desperately need relief. The additional payments will bring their typical rent burdens from more than 80% of their income to less than half.

While the extra assistance helps on a monthly basis, millions behind on their rent still face an incredible challenge in catching up on payments that have piled up before temporary eviction moratoriums expire.

Renters have carried much of the financial burden throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, in large part because of dramatic job losses in high-contact industries that are often staffed by renters. Zillow estimates at least 3 million renters who were employed last March 2020 had lost their jobs and were still out of work in November 2020, including more than a million in the accommodation and food services industries that have been devastated by restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Federal and state unemployment insurance is now the primary source of income for these renters who have lost their jobs. In November, a typical unemployed renter living alone spent 81.2% of that income on rent. The additional $300 a week from the current stimulus package will bring the typical rent burden down to 43%.

That is a huge improvement, but still well above the 30% threshold at which a household is officially "rent burdened." Previous research from Zillow and collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University found that homelessness rates in a community rise sharply once typical rent burdens climb above 30%. The additional $600 a week in unemployment insurance payments from the CARES Act passed in late March brought the rent burden down to 29.5% for unemployed renters paying the typical rent.

"This analysis shows how much even relatively modest amounts of financial assistance can mean to struggling renters," said Chris Glynn, senior economist at Zillow. "Even though supplemental assistance has resumed, there are financial wounds to heal from the three-month period when some renters were sending more than 80% of their unemployment benefits out the door on the first of the month. Temporary eviction moratoriums and unemployment insurance alone may not be enough to keep some renters who have steadily accumulated debts in their homes long term. Housing vulnerability for renters will be a top issue for the incoming administration."

A federal eviction moratorium remains in place to keep those unable to pay in their homes, though industry estimates show only small drops in the share of renters making payments in full compared to a year earlier. But the rent owed continues to accrue even without the looming threat of an eviction. A study by Moody's Analytics estimated that nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of about $6,000 in back rent and utilities by this month. While unemployed renters remain significantly rent burdened, the additional $300 payments may help reduce the debt they will eventually owe when eviction moratoriums expire.

Renters who maintained stable employment in 2020, however, saw their rent burdens stabilize during the pandemic due to slowing rent growth for much of the year. In November, the typical U.S. renter who did not receive unemployment benefits paid an estimated 29.6% of their income on rent, a small improvement from 29.8% in March. Rent growth has shown the first signs of a bounceback, potentially reversing the small gains employed renters made in 2021 and making it more difficult for the millions who have fallen behind on payments.

Catching up any debts accrued will likely prove difficult for many who did not have much financial breathing room to begin with. Low-income renters typically spent 53.1% of their income on rent in 2019, and Zillow research from before the pandemic and resulting recession showed that only 51% of renters said they could afford an unexpected $1,000 expense.

Zillow reports another potential cliff looms on March 14, 2021 when the current $300 weekly supplement expires.


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