One in three Americans could miss rent due to COVID-19 — Congress can help
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Congress' $2 trillion relief package is a strong first step towards restarting an economy devastated by COVID-19. Unfortunately, millions of Americans who rent their homes still need help.

Americans are losing their jobs at unprecedented rates. About 6.6 million workers filed for unemployment benefits last week alone. Nearly a third of Americans aren't confident they'll be able to make their monthly housing payments in the near future, according to a recent CNBC poll. And renters are particularly vulnerable.

Even in good times, renters face more financial challenges than homeowners. In 2018, renters had a median income of just $40,500, compared to $78,000 for homeowners. Renters are less likely to have emergency funds or access to credit, according to data from the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization. Last year, 27 percent of renters often or sometimes had a hard time paying rent, compared to just 7.8 percent of homeowners who struggled to pay their mortgages.

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More than half of all rental households, some 23 million, fall into a particularly vulnerable subset. The 67 million people in these households, or 1 in 5 Americans, live in single-family homes. Of this group, more than half have household incomes under $75,000 a year. Many live in suburbs or smaller communities, often with children and extended family. Five million single-family rental homes are in rural areas.

Some states want to help renters by suspending their payments. But that would be a band-aid fix for a problem that needs major surgery. If a renter loses her job, even temporarily, there's a good chance she won't be able to catch up on back rent, and the looming debt will just become an even greater financial hardship.

Moreover, when crisis-hit renters stop paying rent, landlords will be left without income, which will further hurt communities facing adversity.

Consider where rent checks go. Landlords use that money to pay property taxes, which in turn covers the cost of public services, from school lunches to emergency personnel. The economic fallout of the pandemic is already putting financial pressure on local governments, some of which have ramped up help for seniors and health care workers.

Many rental homeowners also owe mortgages. Many of the loans on these properties — including more than half of those that finance single-family rental homes — are not backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, meaning the property owners are ineligible for help under the recent relief bill.

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A landlord likewise pays for vital maintenance and upkeep, which assures rental homes are clean and safe. As rental income shrinks, property owners struggling to pay their loans will inevitably defer upkeep, leading to a lower quality of housing for all their tenants. As properties fall into disrepair, work for local plumbers and electricians will dry up, adding to the cycle of unemployment.

Help for renters could take a variety of possible forms, such as direct assistance to families through checks and vouchers, or reimbursements to landlords for rent credits provided to residents. Congress might also consider supporting landlords who don't receive rent. Important details will have to be worked out, such as who qualifies, how they should document their eligibility, and how much relief they can receive.

Several programs already in existence through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, such as the housing choice voucher program and community development block grants program for states, might serve as a model. They are already set up to support both renters and landlords by making it possible for families to stay in their homes.

As lawmakers discuss the next steps for regenerating the economy, let's hope they don't forget about America's tens of millions of renters. Housing relief will do more than keep renters in their homes -- it will keep local economies alive.

David Howard is the executive director of the National Rental Home Council.