Gov. Ron DeSantis brought temporary relief to thousands of desperate Floridians by extending the statewide moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. The extension, to July, buys time for renters and homeowners who’ve been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic to imagine how they’ll pay rent or their mortgage. But landlords and lenders are hurting, too. Now is the time to come up with a comprehensive plan that softens the blow for the most vulnerable players along the housing food chain, for this crisis will not end overnight.
DeSantis extended the moratorium last week with only hours to spare, adding to the anxiety for many who are behind in their monthly payments, and perhaps signaling the governor’s reluctance to forestall the day of reckoning much further. Local officials and attorneys have been preparing for a return to the normal evictions process; some 180 cases are poised to move ahead in Hillsborough County alone. The resumption could prompt a brutal chain reaction as delinquent tenants are turned onto the streets and as landlords and lenders face huge losses that could threaten their businesses.
Congress helped with the $2.2 trillion rescue package in March that provided mortgage forbearance to millions of Americans. The package included more than $12 billion and flexible new rules to expand rental subsidies and other housing assistance. But that emergency safety net is severely strained. Many Americans have already spent their $1,200 stimulus checks, which provided enough to cover about a single month’s rent and utilities. Even before the pandemic, U.S. housing costs were rising faster than wages — reducing the supply of affordable housing as Americans spent more of their paychecks on mortgage or rent.
The federal and state governments need to speed the delivery of housing aid already appropriated to hard-hit communities, and continue to be flexible in allowing housing funds to be used at the local level for rental assistance and emergency accommodations. The aim should be to keep residents in their homes and landlords and lenders solvent enough to weather the immediate crunch. Congress could help by passing a bill targeted to help pay for at least a couple more months of rent or mortgage payments for the most needy, and to help small-scale landlords make up for lost income.
Florida can help in getting money out the door by fixing its flawed unemployment benefits system, which is a critical pipeline to cash for displaced workers. States should consider tax credits for landlords who agree to forgive rent payments from delinquent tenants, which offers the dual benefit of freeing up debt for landlords while keeping residents off the street. Cities and counties should also continue offering small subsidies to qualified households. Hillsborough County, for example, has committed $15 million from the $256 million the county secured from the CARES Act federal stimulus in March toward a local housing effort. The program covers rent or mortgage, plus utility payments, for up to two months, and is paid directly to landlords and lenders.
This hodgepodge of assistance has helped temporarily. But millions of Americans face months of no work and no paycheck, and even as the economy reopens, many of these households will recover only gradually. The nation needs to chart a course that gives residents, landlords and lenders stability during the worst of the crisis.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news