Rent's due. Now what? Experts warn a housing crisis shadows the health crisis.

The efforts to help many Americans keep their homes are temporary and don't come close to addressing the scope of the problem.
Image: A person stands on the balcony of an apartment building as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in Long Island City in the Queens borough of New York City
A person stands on the balcony of an apartment building as the coronavirus outbreak continues in Queens, N.Y., on March 20, 2020.Andrew Kelly / Reuters file

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By Allan Smith

Wednesday marks the first of a new month, a day when rent comes due for millions of Americans for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak shuttered much of the country and caused widespread job losses.

Federal, state and local governments have scrambled to enact policies to keep renters whose sources of income have disappeared from getting evicted in the immediate future while treading carefully around measures that could adversely affect landlords and the real estate market at large.

But experts say the initial steps are nowhere near enough to protect low- and middle-income renters and handle what they say is the next biggest issue on legislators' plates after ensuring the stability of the health care system.

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"In terms of the across-the-board, really big, social policy, human need issue, this is it," Andrew Scherer, a law professor at New York Law School, told NBC News of what he sees as an impending crisis. "This is what's looming."

More than 43 million American households are rental properties, although the Census Bureau says renters are historically undercounted given that "many of them are young and mobile, multicultural, or low-income." Just last week, a record number of Americans, more than 3 million, filed for unemployment benefits, a number that is nearly certain to continue rising in the weeks ahead.

"This is a tipping point moment, where so many find themselves joining the ranks of the housing insecure," said Paula Franzese, a law professor at Seton Hall University.

"More must be done ... to protect low- and moderate-income renters," she said. "Eviction pauses, while providing welcome temporary relief, are a mere stopgap measure that, without a forgiveness program for rent arrearages, only provide a brief respite from inevitable eviction."

In the massive $2 trillion relief package, Congress provided a 60-day delay in foreclosures for borrowers with federally backed mortgage loans while allowing six months of forbearance for those experiencing economic hardship because of the outbreak. For those who've taken out federally backed mortgage loans for multifamily properties, the period will be 90 days, while those landlords won't be able to evict or charge late fees to tenants who don't pay rent over that time. Nor will they be able to initiate legal action against tenants.

The federal government also said it would provide many Americans with $1,200 checks, in addition to expanded unemployment benefits for those who've lost their jobs.

At the state and local levels, eviction moratoriums of varying lengths have been put in place. In New York, where the outbreak has hit hardest, the moratorium is among the longest, at 90 days.

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order barring evictions through the end of May for those hit by the outbreak. Tenants must notify landlords within seven days of failing to pay and provide documentation proving their circumstances.

In Michigan, another hard-hit state, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order suspending evictions through April 17, while Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced $5 million in funding to assist those struggling with paying rent because of the outbreak.

For a variety of reasons, experts said, the moratoriums, while necessary in the short term, aren't enough to deal with the housing crisis. For starters, the vast majority of renters don't live in properties that are supported by federally backed mortgages. And unless further legal action is taken, there is nothing to stop a landlord from evicting a tenant as soon as the moratorium passes, seeking to collect rent immediately.

"I think that is a huge risk, and I don't know if anyone has quite figured out the solution to that one," Solomon Greene, a senior expert at the Urban Institute, a social and economic policy think tank, said of landlords' being able to evict tenants once the moratoriums pass. "I don't think that is hypothetical. I think that is likely to happen, because we are seeing so many people losing their jobs."

Asked Sunday for his message to renters, President Donald Trump said he believes landlords "are going to take it easy."

"They don't, sort of, have a choice," the president said. "But a lot of concessions are made, just like the insurance companies. A lot of concessions are being made that wouldn't have even been thought of three weeks ago. Not even thought of. So a lot of really positive things are happening."

Trump's presidential rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have backed calls for rent forgiveness over the near future. Biden called Tuesday for "a temporary ban on evictions nationwide."

"No one should be forced out of their home in the middle of a pandemic," he tweeted.

The movement to cancel rent is gaining the most ground in New York, where activists and lawmakers have called for it.

Democratic New York state Sen. Michael Gianaris recently unveiled legislation that would allow commercial and residential renters directly affected by the outbreak to skip paying rent over a 90-day period, while landlords could subtract the amount they lose from mortgages owed.

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The apartment industry has cautioned about such measures, saying that while more needs to be done to protect renters, many landlords operate on small margins and wouldn't be able to sustain substantial losses of income.

"Lack of rental income puts entire properties in jeopardy and will harm the nation's limited rental housing supply," said Greg Brown, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Apartment Association, one of the industry's main trade groups.

"Even without money coming in, rental property owners still have basic financial obligations, including mortgages, property taxes, payroll, insurance and utilities — all expenses that bolster other sectors of the economy — and any relief measures must ensure owners' financial obligations can still be met or delayed without penalty," he said.

Meanwhile, the National Multifamily Housing Council, another apartment trade group, called on the industry to hold off on evictions for three months while developing payment plans for residents as part of a broader proposal it is promoting.

For rent forgiveness to work, Franzese said, the financial burdens "must be shared by federal and state government and the private sectors." Otherwise, those "much-needed rent forgiveness policies unduly burden landlords who remain obliged to pay property taxes and remit mortgage payments."

Robert Silverman, a professor of urban and regional planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said the amount needed to counterbalance the relief to renters would quickly make rent forgiveness "less and less popular" an option.

"You'd almost have to have, on the other side, some type of mortgage or tax forgiveness for landlords on their properties, and that part of the equation hasn't really been talked about as much," he said in an interview, adding that additional income subsidies to those renters would "help more because they, from the bottom up, try to address the whole problem in a systematic way."

Ultimately, Scherer said, the federal government is in the best position to tackle the wider problem.

"It seems to me that if you can bail out the airline industry and the hospitality industry," he said, "you certainly should be able to bail out people who've lost their jobs as a consequence of the crisis that we're in."