Legislation Amidst Chaos

6 min read

The axis of COVID, racism and affordable housing

Coming into a presidential election year, we knew the outlook for advancing legislation was dismal. Then the Coronavirus stole lives and shuttered businesses across the nation. Then Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by vigilantes while jogging, Breonna Taylor was shot eight times by officers in the middle of the night in her own home, an officer choked George Floyd to death with his knee amidst cries of “I can’t breathe” while three other officers watched, and Rayshard Brooks was shot by police for falling asleep in his car. Legislatively, where do we go from here in the waning months of 2020?

The first half of 2020 demonstrated how quickly priorities can shift. Congress now seems to be settling into its slow, budget-conscious and partisan routines after speedy passage of the three aid packages. Across the country there is a 50-state reopening patchwork that may help some previously unemployed return to work, while others remain out of work or fearful about the prospect of returning to work without a vaccine. The surprisingly positive May unemployment numbers bolstered many Republicans’ position of waiting to see the impact of the aid from the CARES Act.

Unless Congress acts, the additional $600 per week of federal unemployment insurance will end on July 31.

Negotiations on the next COVID-19 aid package have yet to begin in earnest and several members of Congress have said the real discussions will begin after July 4th, with the hope of passing something before the August recess.

There’s an old maxim in policy that it’s hard to take away a popular public benefit, and this is especially true during an election year in which people are still dying from Coronavirus every single day. This would portend that despite some current pushback, Congress will extend the supplemental unemployment insurance benefits albeit perhaps modified so it is no more than what people were previously earning. This compromise solution would reduce the disincentive for people to return to work who are currently earning more through unemployment insurance than they were with their previous earnings while also acknowledging the ongoing need for additional financial help as many workers remain furloughed or unemployed.

Congress has a full plate of legislation to advance while still trying to figure out how to adapt a 244-year-old institution to allow for telework. Beyond the expiring federal unemployment insurance, Congress will need to act on Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations before September 30. House and Senate appropriations committees are busy drafting the 12 subcommittee bills, which will likely be free of any ‘riders’ to expedite their passage. Housing accounts will need substantial increases as federally assisted households report lower incomes from lost wages from COVID-19. Appropriators seem eager to advance their bills and take them off the congressional to-do list. However, in recent years Congress has mostly taken the path of least resistance; recent history would indicate we’ll see a short-term continuing resolution that will fund the government through the election or into early 2021. The danger of a continuing resolution is embedded in its name. Simply continuing last year’s funding amount will not allocate enough money to support all currently assisted households as rents increase and households report lower wages. Should Congress adopt a continuing resolution, the housing community will need to be unified in its calls for anomalies for housing programs.

Congress is also drafting a myriad of other high profile legislation, including an anti-lynching bill (that’s 102 years in the making), banning police chokeholds, limiting “qualified immunity” for police officers that prevents them from being sued, creating a national misconduct registry and ending the use of no-knock warrants in drug cases.

Amidst all of this, housing priorities have the potential to be left by the wayside. NH&RA, along with our partners, has been advocating for a fixed four percent Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) rate, lowering the 50 percent test and providing additional rental assistance. Congress will have to consider re-upping and potentially expanding eviction and foreclosure moratoriums as the end of the 120-day moratorium on federally backed mortgages draws closer and city and state moratoria expire. Senate staff are working on drafting a tax package and relayed that a temporary fix to the four percent has a much better chance than a permanent fix. The nine percent LIHTC was temporarily fixed for five years in 2008 before it was permanently fixed in 2015, setting a legislative precedent for us to follow with the four percent fix.

Tackling systemic racism must include housing. The federal government deliberately and intentionally created and perpetuated racial segregation through the Federal Housing Administration’s use of Home Owners’ Loan Corporation “Residential Security” redlined maps to determine where it would insure mortgages. Congressional appropriations (your tax dollars) were used for the development of separate and unequal public housing. Generational wealth was built and passed down through publicly subsidized homes and educations for returning White soldiers but not African Americans. State and federal funding supported the bulldozing of thriving Black neighborhoods to make way for highways so that White Americans could get to their jobs in the city from their new suburban neighborhoods, which was created in the aftermath of white flight. We still live in segregated communities and where we live results in vast disparities in educational attainment, health outcomes, income, wealth building and perhaps most disturbingly, life expectancy. State-sponsored racism through housing is explained in the books The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, When Affirmative Action Was White by Ira Katznelson and The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America by Alan Mallach.

Future policy responses to COVID-19 must include housing. As we all collectively spend more time than ever in our homes, we’re reminded of the importance of having safe, decent and affordable housing. To keep COVID-19 from becoming an even worse economic crisis, people need resources to stay in their homes, whether it comes in the form of rental assistance, stimulus checks or expanded federal unemployment insurance. Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City vividly articulates the impact of evictions and unstable housing on families. Property owners need forbearance terms that are realistic and added to the end of their payment schedules—not lumped on top of their existing payment schedules. State and local governments must allow affordable housing development to continue and alter their policies to allow for COVID-19 caused delays.

Yes, we face many challenges that can feel overwhelming and beyond our control. Our country is founded on a democracy for the people, by the people; in which it is our collective responsibility to produce the changes we seek. Your Representatives need to hear from you, your colleagues, your friends and your family. And those Representatives need to be held accountable at the ballot box in November.

Kaitlyn Snyder is managing director of National Housing & Rehabilitation Association.