Government-mandated shutdowns and restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic caused unemployment to soar from near-record lows in January to levels unseen in our lifetimes just months later.
With the threat of evictions rising, the federal CARES Act in March imposed a four-month eviction moratorium—along with a ban on late fees—on the more than 28% of rental properties financed with federally backed mortgages or participating in federal housing programs.
Fifteen states and dozens of cities followed suit with their own versions of moratoriums. Portland, Oregon, declared a moratorium for some renters lasting up to six months after the emergency ends.
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Unfortunately, that relief has been imposed without consideration of temporary federal relief programs or the longer-term unintended consequences. Those moratoriums are often unnecessary, unfair, and economically harmful.
Thus far, the eviction moratoriums also have proved largely unnecessary. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the wave of rental delinquencies thus far has been subdued.
The latest Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey tracking the impact of COVID-19 on financial health indicates that 19% of renters failed to pay rent in June. That compares with approximately 16% reporting failure to pay or deferral in the month of March. Delinquencies do not appear to have substantially increased since the start of this extended period of COVID-19 shutdowns.
Of interesting note, only about 9% of Census Bureau respondents reported a loss of income for themselves or anyone they reside with. In fact, loss of income appears to be a factor for only half of those failing to pay rent.
Data from the National Multifamily Housing Council, which tracks more than 11 million professionally managed apartment units, shows only a minimal deterioration in rental payments year over year.
In July, 77.4% of units had made a rental payment by the 6th of the month, down just slightly from 79.7% last year.
Despite the relatively small increase in missed rental payments and the unprecedented federal unemployment benefits, many local governments preemptively issued moratoriums on evictions throughout the pandemic.
In jurisdictions with such bans, eviction hearings and filings are nearly nonexistent. But even in those jurisdictions without moratoriums, a new report from the Federal Reserve shows a 60% year-over-year dip in evictions in April.
That suggests willingness on the part of landlords to voluntarily pause evictions at the height of the crisis. As the crisis eases, eviction filings in jurisdictions without a ban have edged up, but are still down slightly relative to a year ago.
In jurisdictions with moratoriums, the Federal Reserve reports a surge as bans expire followed by a return to normalcy over the following five weeks.
The plunge in evictions coinciding with only a slight rise in delinquent rent payments strongly suggests the current moratorium has allowed many who remain spared from COVID-19 financial stress to live rent-free.
As the shutdowns ease and federal COVID-19 benefits begin to expire, Congress is looking to extend the federal moratoriums. Far-left activists demand even more, including rent forgiveness even without proof of hardship on the part of the renter and with possibly no government reimbursement to the landlord by the government.
Those efforts represent an abdication of a core government responsibilities; namely, enforcement of private contracts and protection of private property. Forcing property owners to provide free housing is a subtle form of expropriation of private property without just compensation.
Politicians may enjoy a short-term boost in popularity from such measures. However, the unintended consequences are extensive. Initially, the decrease in cash flow affects the landlord only. However, as this persists, delayed maintenance and upgrades ensue.
Some landlords may delay their own mortgage payments, negatively affecting the owners of those mortgages—banks, credit unions, investors, institutional shareholders, and even taxpayers.
As landlords postpone property tax payments, local schools, fire departments, law enforcement, and parks experience a decline in funding.
Landlords will increase rents to mitigate the heightened risk of future moratoriums and to recoup revenue already lost. Prospective renters may find themselves subject to increased security deposits and tighter credit checks.
Ultimately, fewer affordable housing units may be constructed.
This cascade of unintended consequences can be avoided. Alternatives for renters in lieu of moratoriums include voluntarily modification of rental agreements, early termination of leases, and saving resources by temporarily living with family or friends.
The eviction process serves as a safeguard to protect the private property rights essential to ensuring an ample supply of safe, affordable housing.
State or local governments wishing to provide COVID-19 rental relief should do so through transparent, democratically implemented assistance. This spreads the cost of aid across the entire community, rather than placing the entire burden on a small group of property owners.
Consider Pittsburgh with 330,000 renter households. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment increased by 11.2 percentage points to 16.4%. A surge in delinquencies directly proportional to the increase in the overall unemployment rate would result in nearly 37,000 delinquent rental units.
With a median two-bedroom apartment rental in Pittsburgh of $910 monthly, a program covering half the rental costs for three months on these units would cost the city $50 million, more than 8% of the city’s annual operating budget.
That’s a substantial burden on the local government. That type of profligate spending comes with its own downsides, but at least allows residents to hold politicians accountable.
Families across the nation face a more uncertain future, thanks to the myriad COVID-19 restrictions enacted by local governments. If the slowdown continues, families will find it more difficult to cover basic housing expenses.
Ultimately, we must permit people once again to freely invest, create, work, shop, and engage. A continued assault on private property through eviction moratoriums only compounds the economic hazards.