WASHINGTON -- The impasse between the Trump administration and congressional Democratic leaders in negotiations over a COVID-19 relief package worries both advocates for rural low-income housing and owners of Department of Agriculture-financed rental properties.
Advocates and landlords say the now-expired federal $600 a week add-on to state unemployment payments probably helped the most vulnerable of rural tenants in USDA-financed rental units -- those who don't receive federal rental assistance -- to stay mostly current with payments. In turn, property owners were able to pay expenses such as mortgages.
"Now we're back to where we were in March," said Colleen M. Fisher, executive director for the Council for Affordable and Rural Housing whose members build, finance, manage or own rural housing. Fisher said the uncertainty over a possible deal on federal unemployment payments leaves her members up in the air.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump said he could intervene in the next day or two with an executive order that might include unemployment benefits, but he offered few details.
Fisher said her organization doesn't have a position on whether benefits should remain at $600 a week, but some of its members think the $200 a week proposed by some Republicans may not be enough to allow tenants to pay rent and feed their families. The organization also wants a COVID-19 bill that provides additional funding for USDA's rental assistance program, which pays the majority of eligible tenants' rent.
The relief bill passed by the House in May would provide $309 million through Sept. 30, 2021, to increase rental assistance for current low-income participants who have taken pay cuts or lost jobs. Language in the bill also would allow more renters in USDA-financed units to qualify for aid "without regard to any existing eligibility requirements based on income."
Senate Republicans proposed $113.4 million to continue rental assistance without expanding aid to those not currently participating.
The relief law enacted in March provided the $600 a week unemployment payments and a moratorium on evictions for rental housing financed by federally backed mortgages, including properties in the USDA Rural Housing Service's Section 515 program.
The program is an important source of affordable housing and provides low-interest direct loans for construction of rental and cooperative housing in rural areas. The loans are repayable over 50 years and apply to 13,500 properties across the country with about 417,000 units.
The eviction moratorium for renters expired on July 24, but renters, depending on where they live, could receive protection under state eviction delays. If landlords have received deferments on mortgage payments, they cannot evict tenants for nonpayment during the deferment period, which is typically 90 days. The USDA's Rural Development housing agency will continue to accept deferment requests while the federal national emergency is in place or through Dec. 31.