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$25 billion in federal rent aid covers less than half of what tenants owe

Eviction ban extended through January
COVID-19 relief bill extends eviction ban, provides rental assistance to millions of Americans  07:18

Among President Joe Biden's first moves in office will be to extend a federal eviction moratorium, giving struggling renters time to take advantage of a $25 billion federal assistance program designed to help people pay rent and utilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although sorely needed, those moves aren't nearly enough to cover the nation's growing back-rent backlog. More than 10 million households in the U.S., or nearly one-fourth of the nation's renters, are behind on rent, according to the most recent Census Household Pulse survey. A Moody's Analytics report this week shows that Americans owe a collective $57 billion in back rent as of January.

"The typical delinquent renter will owe $5,600 as they will be almost four months behind on their monthly rent of $1,130 and utilities of $290. They will also be on the hook for a late-payment penalty of $50 per month," Moody's Chief Economist Mark Zandi wrote. The most vulnerable renters, according to Moody's analysis, are between ages 40 and 54 and live in the Northeast corridor, the South or California.

For some renters, the amount is much higher.

Najee Wilson, a model and performance artist living in Brooklyn, New York, said he lost all his income during the pandemic, and is nine months behind on his rent of about $2,000.

"A lot of the time, my work is scheduled eight months in advance. I haven't been able to plan for a future," Wilson said on a conference call organized by the progressive advocacy group People's Action. "I have thousands of dollars of rent that's backlogged."

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"Pivotal moment"

For many, the aid can't come soon enough.

Meghan Heddings is executive director of Family Housing Resources, a nonprofit and affordable-housing manager in Tucson, Arizona. "Right now we're in that pivotal moment, Heddings said earlier this week. "The funds are only trickling out in the state of Arizona; the other programs have all ended. We're in a waiting game and have 11 days left until the next moratorium expires."

Mr. Biden has indicated he intends to extend the moratorium until March 31 from January 31, but has yet to formally issue an executive order stipulating the change.

From September to November, the Community Investment Corporation, another Tucson nonprofit, helped more than 900 people apply for rental aid. "At our height, we did over 200 households in a single week," recalled Danny Knee, the group's executive director. When the funding ran out, the CIC had 250 people on a waiting list; it has since swelled to 1,000, Knee said.

Rental aid programs come with their own pitfalls. Some landlords don't want to participate in such government programs, while many tenants don't know how to get help or don't qualify because of income restrictions. The Treasury program excludes renters who were having trouble paying rent prior to the pandemic.

Jannah bint al Yusuf, a resident of Lexington, Kentucky, was nearly evicted last year despite qualifying for help. Yusuf, 46, lost her job shortly before the pandemic erupted last year. She has not received unemployment benefits but was able to make her 2019 tax refund last through most of the summer, she told CBS MoneyWatch. 

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In August, Yusef applied for rental assistance from a local organization, but the money was delayed and didn't reach her landlord in time, she said. Yusuf recalls the experience of finding an eviction notice taped to her door that month. By the time the money finally went through, an eviction court hearing had been scheduled.

"There were literally days that I would just cry," she said. "I'm thinking, you know, I'm just a complete and total failure, what is going to happen? I couldn't find employment, I got let go for my job and couldn't find employment, this pandemic happened."

The court date came on September 10, a few days after a federal moratorium on evictions kicked in, and her case was dismissed. Still, Yusuf worries about what will happen at the end of the month. 

"I don't feel that I'm in the clear," Yusuf said. "Once something like that does take place, it does something to you on the inside, that you're, you're unsafe, and you're always going to be on edge. Because I always feel like I'm on the edge of the cliff looking down, and oh gosh, any minute, someone's going to kick me off."

Evictions still rising

It's not clear how many people will benefit from the $25 billion federal rent assistance — housing experts have previously estimated anywhere from 2 million to 8 million households could get help from the first tranche. But even with that federal aid, evictions are expected to rise.

Nationally, eviction filings are rising, and in some places approaching the level they were prior to the pandemic, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

"While emergency protections have stalled evictions and temporarily kept people in their homes, they have not stalled rents. Most households that find themselves two, three or four months behind on rent will not be able to repay that debt on their own," they write.

In California, officials expect the number of eviction cases this year to double from their usual level, reaching 250,000 in that state alone. Nationally, researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia expect evictions to jump 50%, according to the Washington Post.

Writes Zandi of Moody's: "Lawmakers deserve credit for ensuring that these households did not lose their homes. But they need to do more. Soon."

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