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Millions Face Bitter Winter If Congress Fails To Extend Relief Programs

Sen. Mark Warner speaks alongside a bipartisan group of lawmakers as they announce a proposal for a $908 billion coronavirus relief bill on Tuesday.
Sen. Mark Warner speaks alongside a bipartisan group of lawmakers as they announce a proposal for a $908 billion coronavirus relief bill on Tuesday.

The pandemic rages on. More than 180,000 people tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday. States and cities are closing businesses. Nearly 800,000 people are applying for unemployment every week.

Despite all this, Congress has not passed an economic relief package since late April — and a set of vital relief measures helping millions of Americans avoid financial ruin and eviction are all set to expire this month.

A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a proposal for a compromise bill to break the logjam and provide nearly $1 trillion in relief funding. Republican Sen. Susan Collins said, "It is absolutely essential that we pass emergency relief."

But the passage of this or any bill is far from guaranteed. Here's what's at stake:

Some 12 million Americans will lose unemployment benefits the day after Christmas.

For Anneliese Monkman, looking ahead to the new year is daunting. She used to work at a hotel in Bangor, Maine, but lost her job last spring when the pandemic hit. Her fiancé was laid off too from his restaurant job.

They haven't been able to find work. But for a time they were able to get by with support from the original CARES Act that paid supplemental unemployment insurance of $600 a week on top of state benefits.

But that supplemental aid ran out in July. And Monkman is now scraping by on the emergency relief — just $355 a week.

"It's been a struggle deciding what bills to pay and what bills get pushed," she says. "We try to keep things like car insurance, gas, and phone and Internet, because those things keep us allowing us to look for jobs."

Without action from Congress, even that reduced unemployment payout is set to end later this month. In all, an estimated 12 million Americans will lose unemployment benefits. That number might be a bit high since the unemployment system is overwhelmed and the data may not be as reliable as usual. But it's still likely to be in the millions.

"You're looking at families who are trying to teach their kids from home. And feed them on very little money," Monkman says. "They are not going to have things like heat. And here, that could be, you know, life-threatening."

Also expiring — a federal order stopping many renters from being evicted.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order meant to protect renters from eviction ends Jan. 1. Experts say it is protecting a lot of people, even if it is imperfect. It's not a blanket ban on evictions like some states have mandated.

Many renters don't know there's a CDC order that could keep them from being evicted. And they don't show up at court hearings; thousands are being evicted.

Jeremy and Alice Bumpus have been facing eviction in Houston after they both lost their jobs.

"We've got a 13-, a 12- and a 10-year-old in the house," Jeremy says. "My mom is 68." Alice says her mother-in-law's health issues have them very concerned about moving into a crowded living situation somewhere else.

"That's what we worry about the most, you know?" she says. "How much more are we going to be at risk when we have to move up out of our home? My mother-in-law is very sickly."

With the help of a Legal Aid lawyer, the Bumpus family used the CDC order to stay in their home while they try to scrape together money doing odd jobs. But with that order expiring, they could soon be forced to leave.

Christina Rosales is deputy director of Texas Housers, a nonprofit in the state. She points to a new study showing that already thousands of COVID-19 deaths can be attributed to evictions as people have been forced to crowd in with other family or homeless shelters.

But, she says, courts in Texas and other states are still holding hearings over Zoom calls to evict more people.

"It's lunacy," Rosales says. "It is absolute lunacy to see the pandemic numbers in Texas just rising, the infection rates, the death rates, the hospitalizations." She says: "Judges are continuing to hold hearings and people are very scared about losing their home, being thrown out into the streets."

Many housing groups, and some economists too, are calling for a sweeping nationwide eviction moratorium, along with money for landlords to protect them from insolvency due to unpaid rents.

Foreclosure protections expire, too. But homeowners still have better protections than renters.

Most homeowners have federally backed mortgages, and they have been protected from foreclosure during the pandemic. That ends at the end of the year.

But even with that, homeowners still have far better protections than renters do. The CARES Act gave stronger protections to homeowners than renters — even though homeowners already tend to have much more wealth and assets.

It's become clear during the pandemic that lower income people and minority neighborhoods have been hit harder by the pandemic in a variety of ways.

"We're seeing that extending into the stability of housing as well," says Peter Hepburn, a research fellow Princeton University's Eviction Lab, which is tracking evictions around the country.

Congress is allowing homeowners to skip up to one year of mortgage payments with no penalties. Housing policy experts say the vast majority of homeowners should be able to move missed payments to the end of their loans and start making regular mortgage payments when they find work again. (That is, if mortgage companies follow the rules.)

Renters have nowhere near that kind of protection. And since minority neighborhoods tend to have a lot more renters, Hepburn says, as evictions keep rising, "the downstream consequences of this for Black communities, for Latino communities, are really significant."

What the new proposed compromise bill would do to help

For months now Congress has been deadlocked, with House Democrats pushing for a big $2 trillion aid package and Senate Republicans arguing for a much narrower bill of about $500 billion. Now a compromise $908 billion plan has emerged from a bipartisan group of congressional moderates. Some of the key features:

  • Extended unemployment insurance — $180 billion —enough to provide a $300 weekly benefit for 18 weeks.
  • Help for small businesses — $333 billion —including a renewal of the Paycheck Protection Program that offers forgivable loans.
  • Rental assistance program — $25 billion —staffers say this is expected to include some form of eviction protection, though details on that to come.
  • Assistance for state, local and tribal governments — $160 billion.
  • Help for transportation systems — $45 billion —includes airlines, airports, buses, transit and Amtrak.
  • Vaccine development and distribution — $16 billion— includes money for testing and tracing.
  • Assistance for education and school systems — $82 billion.
  • Temporary protection for businesses against COVID-related lawsuits.
  • What are the chances of this new compromise effort passing?

    The congressional lame-duck session is about to end. President Trump is a short-timer in the White House, and partisan tensions remain high. Other attempts to forge a compromise have failed. But there is agreement among leaders in both parties that quick action to provide relief is urgently needed.

    April Kinsinger lives near Dayton, Ohio, and is scraping by on $189 a week. With those benefits about to run out, she's frustrated by the lack of help from Washington.

    "I think normal people sitting here watching the television screen are pretty sick and tired of seeing both sides fighting over kind of arbitrary things when we're unable to make our car payments, when we're unable to put food on the table." Kinsinger says, "It seems a lot like they're fighting over political stuff when we just need to be able to feed our kids."

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