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The pandemic worsened America’s housing crisis. Here’s how Biden can help

Biden faces steep housing challenges, from helping renters who can’t pay their rent during COVID-19 to preparing American homes for climate change.

The pandemic worsened America’s housing crisis. Here’s how Biden can help
[Source Image: valigursky/iStock]
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Long before Election Day, as the pandemic thrashed the economy, the housing agenda of the next presidential administration was largely set. Peoples’ abilities to pay rents and mortgages has been severely tested, putting the onus on the government to step in with protections. And while this has happened to some degree, more help will be needed as the pandemic drags on.

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The question is–and has been–what the leadership will do to address these immediate challenges and their long-term impacts on the housing market. Now that Joe Biden has been elected president, the housing challenges largely ignored by President Donald Trump will be front and center.

“The big immediate obvious thing is that there are a lot of people who don’t have jobs, don’t have income, and who are going to have a lot of trouble paying the rent and the mortgage,” says housing expert Jenny Schuetz, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “Figuring out how to help people stay in stable housing as the economy hopefully recovers is going to be the key challenge.”

Renters, Schuetz notes, have been hit harder than homeowners as the pandemic has continued to stifle the economy. (In addition to stimulus payments approved early on in the pandemic, one remedy the Trump administration offered to address housing challenges was a moratorium on evictions.) The incoming Biden administration, Schuetz says, will likely want to fix the current administration’s approach. And even without a Democrat-majority Senate behind him, Biden may be able to push through some of these policies through executive orders.

“The CDC’s eviction moratorium is a very new thing to do,” Schuetz says. “There’s been a lot of confusion about how that’s implemented and a large part is because it’s coming from the CDC and not from [the Department of Housing and Urban Development]. The administration didn’t roll this out through an agency that understands how housing markets work with a lot of clear guidance, and so I think that’s made it more complicated than it needed to be.”

After initially expiring and leading some states and cities to enact their own eviction protections, the CDC renewed its moratorium in September. But, as some housing groups have argued, the CDC’s eviction moratorium delays rather than solves the pending problem because it only lasts until the end of this year.

Schuetz says the incoming Biden administration would chip away at some of these housing challenges by pushing some kind of a large stimulus package that would include direct economic assistance to households, similar to the Economic Impact Payments included in the CARES Act approved by Congress in March. This prospect may be hampered by a Republican-controlled Senate, but Schuetz notes that both the Senate and the House of Representatives are likely to continue hearing demand for help from their constituents.

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Biden’s administration will also likely begin working on a few of the key issues outlined in his campaign’s housing plan, including investing in energy efficient buildings and expanding access to affordable housing vouchers. A major focus will be addressing widespread housing discrimination, according to Gerron Levi, senior director of government affairs at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a group focused on affordable housing and community development. She says Biden’s plan calls for a reinstatement of antidiscrimination enforcement rules enacted by the Obama administration and then thrown out by Trump. “There would be far more robust and aggressive enforcement under a Biden administration,” she says.

Schuetz says that in addition to all this, Biden will likely look at housing through another important lens: climate change. “One of the themes that’s likely to come out of a Biden administration is a greater focus on climate change, including the role of the built environment–where are we building housing, is it close to jobs and transportation. So any additional funding for infrastructure or transportation could be tied to patterns of housing development,” Schuetz says. “And because some funding for infrastructure is likely to be part of an upfront stimulus package, I would expect to see something like that fairly soon.”

But much of the early action won’t be up to Biden alone. “A lot of it’s actually dependent not just on the president but on Congress and their willingness to appropriate extra funds for it,” Schuetz says.

Whatever else Biden’s administration hopes to achieve, the pandemic-related challenges will probably be first on his housing to-do list.