Survey of the Housing Sector

Update 475 — Starts and Stops:
Survey of the Housing Sector

Among the economic issues exacerbated by the coronavirus and the recession, housing is among the main culprits. Below, we analyze the situation facing renters, homeowners, and homebuyers and offer solutions for the housing crisis. 

We pause to reflect on the life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who died on Friday. The Justice lived a full life dedicated to equality first and foremost among constitutional issues. Indeed 74 years ago, in 1946, the year after WWII ended, she wrote the following at the age of 13:

“There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.”

– Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  (1933 – 2020)




In yesterday’s House Financial Services hearing, Chair Waters emphasized the third of renters who missed their September rent payment, the possibility of a major wave of evictions at the end of the year, and the necessity of rental assistance. The HEROES Act would have provided meaningful relief, but Republicans have refused to agree to anything close. 

Rental Crisis

Pre-COVID, half of renters were rental-cost-burdened and a quarter spent more than half their income on rent. The pandemic has inflated this crisis, as half of all renters have lost a job. A quarter of renters have either no or only slight confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent. About 35 percent of black and Hispanic renters have little confidence in their ability to pay. 

The CARES Act created a federal eviction and foreclosure moratorium that expired on July 24. In August, President Trump announced an executive order to halt evictions through the end of the year, and the CDC released guidelines for the moratorium earlier this month. Yet some landlords have continued evicting tenants for non-payment of rent. Per the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, private equity firms and other corporate landlords have filed more than 1,500 eviction lawsuits since September 1. 

By year’s end, between 29-43 percent of renters will be at risk of eviction. Even renters who received federal eviction protection will need to pay all back-rent in a lump sum, including accumulated late fees and interest, totaling about $70 billion. Those who already struggled to pay rent prior to the crisis and whose savings have been wiped out are unlikely to have the financial resources to avoid eviction. 

Other groups affected include:

  • Small Businesses: The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) helped small businesses pay for operating expenses like rent but stopped accepting applications in early August. During the pandemic, over 60 percent of small businesses have had to either delay or limit their rent payments. Without rental assistance or further PPP funding, small businesses will face further mass closures.
  • Mom and Pop Landlords: Independent landlords with less than five rental units own half of all rental properties. The majority of these small-time landlords rely on income from rent to pay their mortgages. More than half have no access to alternative lines of credit. Failure to provide relief to small landlords could further erode access to affordable housing should landlords face foreclosure. 

Homeownership in Peril

The number of new borrowers entering forbearance plans during the pandemic has been declining, but about 8.4 million mortgage holders remain behind on their payments. Mortgage delinquencies longer than 90 days are at their highest level in a decade. About five percent of mortgages will be significantly delinquent by the end of the year. And black households, which still had not recovered from the Great Recession and have a higher unemployment rate, are more likely to face foreclosure. 

The CARES Act created a foreclosure moratorium for federally-backed mortgages through August, which the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) extended through December. Many eligible homeowners, however, don’t know that forbearance is an option. Of the one million homeowners at least 30 days behind on their mortgage payments without forbearance, almost 70 percent have federally-guaranteed mortgages and qualify for forbearance. 

Some lenders have placed homeowners into forbearance without their knowledge. And while the CARES Act prohibits forbearance due to COVID from affecting credit scores, lenders may still make note of a borrower’s forbearance status in their reports to credit rating agencies. In May, consumer advocates launched a class action suit against a federal loan servicer and three credit rating agencies for illegal decreases in consumer credit scores due to forbearance.

Two Markets for Two Americas

The market for suburban single-family housing is booming, while the market for multi-family and retail is going bust. Driven by record-low mortgage rates, white-collar Americans who can work from home are ditching their city apartments and buying bigger homes in less densely populated suburbs. Home sales rose by 10.5 percent in August, and sales for homes valued over $1 million increased by 44 percent. Urban exodus coupled with a limited supply of homes has driven suburban housing prices to record highs. According to Redfin, home prices are 13 percent higher than last year with the median home price up to a record $320,000. The market is hot for now, but mortgage application numbers in recent weeks have dwindled, which may signal flattening home sales.

Low-interest rates also produced a booming refinancing market, but this market has begun to slow after the FHFA announced a new fee on refinances backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Refis have been primarily awarded to the wealthiest borrowers, and the added fee will further hurt lower-income homeowners. At a House Financial Services Committee hearing last week, both sides of the aisle scrutinized the rate for its cost to consumers. Although the fee goes into effect December 1, lenders are now preemptively hiking rates by 0.125 to 0.25 percentage points to cover their added costs. 

Meanwhile, rent prices for multi-family and commercial units, especially in urban areas, are collapsing. These markets have experienced a serious shortfall in demand. Rental prices have dropped in major markets due in part to high urban unemployment. White-collar urban exodus and a majority of young adults opting to live with their families have also depressed demand. In Manhattan, the median rental dropped by 7.7 percent from last year — the first decline in decades. Commercial real estate is experiencing similar challenges, as online shopping and working from home depress demand for physical work locations. 

A Progressive Platform for Relief 

Months ago, Democrats unveiled the HEROES Act, which would have provided relief for homeowners, renters, and landlords. Other Democrats have floated proposals to ease the pain:

  • Eviction Moratorium: In response to Trump’s executive order, the CDC issued an eviction moratorium which applies to all those eligible for a stimulus check. But courts across the country are offering varying interpretations, with some preventing landlords from filing for eviction and others claiming that the moratorium is unconstitutional. The CDC must provide clarification. 
  • Rental Assistance: Because the CDC moratorium does not forgive or help pay back rent, renters face a financial cliff on January 1. To preserve landlords’ incomes and keep people in their homes, Americans need rental assistance. Per the Urban Institute, it would cost $14.2 billion per month to alleviate the burden of renters nationwide without further unemployment aid. The HEROES Act included $100 billion in rental assistance to address the needs of renters and landlords. 
  • Rent Forgiveness: Other Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Ilhan Omar, have proposed canceling rent and mortgage payments. Rep. Omar introduced legislation that would bar lenders and landlords from collecting monthly payments and imposing late fees during the pandemic. The bill includes a fund for landlords and lenders to recoup losses. 

The eviction moratorium managed to postpone a massive housing crisis until at least next year, but a financial cliff remains imminent. Property owners are also left without a substantial portion of their income under the current policy. The next COVID relief package must go above codifying the moratorium and address the housing costs for renters and landlords alike. 

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