By Soli Salgado | Catholic News Service
As the pandemic provoked shutdowns across the United States in March 2020, Jason’s stress level began to climb.
He had to handle cash as an essential employee selling car parts at an AutoZone in McKinney, Texas, a state with no mask mandate. His precarious health — asthma, sarcoidosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, allergies — put him at a higher risk of serious illness should he contract COVID-19.
As his hours dwindled at work, Jason’s ability to pay his bills began to depend on the opportunity to mow someone’s grass for quick cash or sell whatever he could find that was sitting in his garage: the tools he still needed, or the motorcycle, which was worth twice what he sold it for. Then last June 8 he lost his job.
Because he was hired two days too late to qualify for unemployment assistance, Jason spent the last year improvising to pay the bills, including asking his 19-year-old daughter to contribute her wages from waitressing.
“It got me so beat down,” said Jason, who asked not to use his last name because “it’s embarrassing enough having to ask for assistance.”
“If you can’t provide for your family and you have to ask your daughter to help you out, it makes you feel pretty worthless as man,” he told the Global Sisters Report.
Jason has an understanding landlord who was patient with his past-due rent, and he eventually received direct rent relief from Catholic Charities. However, he said he still feels like he lucked out by not having to depend on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s temporary moratorium on residential eviction imposed in September.
With millions of Americans like Jason either out of work or experiencing loss of income because of the pandemic, the moratorium’s intent was to prevent homelessness and the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded shelters.
And the ball keeps getting kicked down the road: A December expiration date turned into January, and the incoming administration of President Joseph Biden initially pushed it to March 31. If the expiration date does not change again, June 30 could mean an expensive due date for millions of renters who have accumulated months of back rent.
Women religious have long ministered to people experiencing homeless or inadequate housing. They operate shelters and assistance programs designed to help people stay off the streets. But rather than wait for a tsunami of evictions on the other side of the moratorium, some sisters have started organizing fundraisers for rent and utility relief, hoping to help renters chip away at their growing bills.
“This pandemic just highlighted what everybody paying attention already knew,” said Matt Janeczko, executive director of the Sisters of Charity Housing in Yonkers, New York. The program runs more than a dozen affordable housing projects and homeless shelters for seniors, those who have chronic mental illness, and women with children.
Even before the pandemic, the U.S. already was experiencing an affordable housing shortage. Roughly 25% of renter households spend more than half their income on rent, and a quarter of those below the poverty line spend more than 70%, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.
“The systemic inequalities and difficulties were already here,” Janeczko said. “Anybody could have told you that there was a housing crisis before this.”
Meanwhile, sisters nationwide are banding together to provide financially for those currently facing a housing crisis.
The Felician Sisters got the idea for a grant at a fall council meeting in which the sisters and their lay partners brainstormed ways to be more helpful to those struggling financially because of the pandemic. They teamed up with Catholic Charities USA in December for a challenge grant, with each group contributing $1 million to what would become the Francis Fund for Eviction Prevention.
Considering the impending “tsunami of evictions around the corner,” Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, suggested they focus on eviction mitigation, an issue that, unlike food donations, requires more infrastructure and organizing to address effectively.
Because Catholic Charities has 167 agencies nationwide, “we know where people are hurting,” Sister Markham said, and they are “able to get a lot of immediate help to people.”
The fund continues to garner donations and has since raised an additional $250,000.
When Jason applied for assistance from Collin County, Texas, officials put him in touch with Catholic Charities Dallas, which is covering his $1,875 in monthly rent while he pays for utilities and all other expenses.
With a desire to alleviate the burden of bills for people like Jason, the Sisters of Charity of New York also established a fund that would help those on the verge of eviction or who needed money for utilities.
Sister Donna Dodge, the congregation’s president, said the program is operating on a relatively small scale through word of mouth, turning to their fellow sisters, friends and relatives for donations.
“I do hope that the grassroots money will begin to come in so we can sustain this because the problem is not going to go away,” she said.
But even with religious congregations and Catholic Charities addressing the crisis, Sister Markham said, “we realize full well that this can’t be the responsibility of charities alone. This demands a lot of robust advocacy efforts with Congress and the (Biden) administration to get help.”
The moratorium, Sister Markham said, “only postponed the inevitable.”
Janeczko agreed, calling it an “artificial fix.”
“It’s really easy to say, ‘We’re going to cancel rent.’ But when the boiler breaks in the building, how do you think we’re going to pay the plumber?”
The National Real Estate Investors Association conducted an informal survey among its members — mostly small landlords and house flippers — asking how the eviction moratorium was affecting them.
About a third of the small landlords — those who own 25 units or fewer — said if something did not change within six months, they were “going under,” said Charles Tassell, the association’s chief operating officer.
The National Multifamily Housing Council’s Rent Payment Tracker found that, as of March 6, about 20% of apartment households are not current on their rent; in 2020, estimates of lost rent range from $27 billion to $60 billion despite federal relief.
While the eviction moratorium shields tenants from paying their monthly rent, Tassell said “behind the scenes, the bank bill keeps coming due,” including property taxes, contractor fees and regular maintenance. With most properties operating on 5% to 10% margins, there’s little leeway for some landlords to earn an income.
“That’s what could take these folks under,” Tassell said.
An effective alternative to the government moratorium’s “belt-and-suspenders approach” is the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Tassell said. The $25-billion program is funded in part by the coronavirus relief appropriation bill signed into law in December.
It directly helps renters whose income has been affected by the pandemic as well as the “the next set of dominos” that falls to the landlord, such as mortgage, maintenance and property taxes. The Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan signed into law in March adds another $21.6 billion to the effort.
Janeczko said he often thinks about the emotional toll the moratorium inflicts on tenants, those who wake up every day knowing that, eventually, several months of rent will be due while their savings are still dry.
The pandemic, Janeczko said, has exposed that a large number of Americans do not have savings and cannot afford their housing.
“The current housing situation is a symptom, not the ailment. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”