On his first day as president, Joe Biden reversed a raft of Donald Trump's ill-conceived policies — and then adopted one of them as his very own.
He extended the federal moratorium on evictions.
The purpose was commendable: to prevent renters from losing shelter amid a pandemic. Tossing families onto the street and packing them into shelters would be a boon to COVID-19. Workers who have lost jobs in the crisis can hardly be blamed if they lack the money to keep a roof over their heads. The moratorium blocks landlords from banishing tenants for not paying rent, though the renters are not relieved of what they owe.
Back in the spring, when the nation faced a sudden catastrophe, the eviction freeze made sense as a temporary necessity. As a lasting remedy, though, it is riddled with flaws.
Keeping people in their homes is valuable for preventing infections. It averts severe hardship to individuals and neighborhoods. It works to the benefit of the public as a whole, not just tenants.
But the eviction moratorium sends the bill for that benefit to a small group of people: property owners. Because we all gain from protecting renters, we all should swallow our share of the cost through that old-fashioned mechanism known as taxes.
Not all renters need protection right now, but the help isn't limited to those who do. People with secure jobs and good incomes can forgo paying as long as the moratorium lasts. And what assurance do property owners have that they'll ever see a dime? When the rent finally comes due, tenants could stiff the proprietor, take the funds they saved and find new quarters.
Many landlords depend on rents for their own livelihood. Forcing them to provide free housing is an onerous burden. Even during the pandemic, they have to cover property taxes, maintenance costs, insurance, mortgages and other fees.
They're not the only ones who suffer from the moratorium. Brookings Institution economist Jenny Schuetz points out that "many of the expenses incurred by landlords are actually the wages of other workers." If property owners can't pay their property taxes, local governments will have even greater trouble funding public health services and other functions. Landlords who lose income will have less to spend, to the sorrow of other businesses, not to mention the economy.
If we want to spare tenants from seeing their belongings piled on the sidewalk, there is a better way: Give them money or other direct help. The rescue package approved by Congress last month provided $25 billion for emergency rental assistance, but the total unpaid rent is already in the neighborhood of $70 billion, and it's getting bigger every month. House Democrats wanted to include $100 billion for renters, but they couldn't get it.
The measure boosts unemployment benefits by $300 a week, which will help. But the 11.4 million tenants who are behind on their rent owe an average of $6,000 each. The $600-per-person stimulus checks, which Biden wants to supplement with another $1,400, will also provide some relief, but they are not targeted to Americans who really need the money.
With previous stimulus payments, a household with a yearly income as high as $150,000 was entitled to the full amount. The $166 billion to finance the $600 payments would go a long way if it were limited to hardship cases instead of being sprayed around indiscriminately. Congress could also divert the money to landlords who have lost earnings.
The moratorium does nothing to address the long-term problem, namely, the persistent lack of affordable housing. In recent decades, rents have been rising faster than income. The result, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, is that 10.8 million American households now spend more than half their income on rent.
Governments could ease the crunch by lifting regulations that restrict development and raise the cost of building new units. Washington could spend more for rental assistance or public housing. But depriving landlords of income for months on end will only discourage investment in rental properties. The long-term effect of temporarily blocking evictions will be to leave tenants with fewer places to live.
In the past four years, we've learned to be on the constant lookout for administration policies spawned by callousness and cruelty. In the next four, we should keep in mind that harm can also come from good intentions.