Rising Housing Costs Leave Homebuyers Struggling

Tasha N. Temple, 38, a client of Ms. Dutton’s, was able to remain in her two-bedroom apartment after using unemployment assistance to catch up on her overdue rent bill. She called the program, and the moratorium, a “lifesaver.”

Of course, by assisting tenants, the government is also assisting landlords. Neal Verma, president of Nova Asset Management, a Houston landlord with some 6,000 units, said in an interview that his tally of unpaid rents — $1.4 million just a few months ago — had been whittled to about $400,000 thanks to $1 million in government rental assistance. He said he expected to recover even more.

Landlords groups echoed tenant advocates’ frustration with the pace of federal housing aid, and in some cases say they would support a longer moratorium if it meant collecting more rent.

“Getting the funds to landlords has been incredibly slow, and that has impacted those tenants who are truly in need and those landlords who are not getting paid,” said Tom Bannon, president of the California Apartment Association, the state’s biggest trade group for landlords. “We could support a limited short extension, but there has to be a way to get the funds out faster.”

But the moratorium was never much more than a stopgap that has done nothing to address a worsening nationwide housing affordability crisis caused by gentrification, the wealth gap and a chronic shortage of housing for the working class and poor. Even before the pandemic, one in four rental households was paying more than half its pretax income on rent, while homelessness was on the rise. Since then, more than half of renter households lost income, and 17 percent were behind on rent earlier this year, according to the Harvard report.

Moreover, while rents got more affordable last year, the pandemic served to highlight the nation’s longstanding shortage of affordable housing. As the economy opens up, renters at the high end of the market are greeting a world of 10 percent vacancy rates and frenzied competition that has buildings offering as much as five months of free rent.

Tenants in search of a moderate or lower-priced unit will find a vacancy rate that is half as high and essentially unchanged from a year ago. With competition fierce, rents in lower-end units grew at a faster rate in the first three months of this year than they did in the year before the pandemic.

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