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This latest COVID relief bill just passed by Congress has billions of dollars in rental assistance for people who've lost work, can't pay rent and are just trying to avoid eviction. This could benefit landlords, too. Many of them have been struggling to keep their apartment buildings up and running. So some landlords are helping their residents apply for federal relief aid. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Nearly 10 million Americans are behind on their rent payments, according to the Census Bureau. And Stephanie Graves is seeing that play out firsthand. She's a landlord who owns buildings around Houston.
STEPHANIE GRAVES: I have a small property in town. It's about 22 units. And eight residents have not been able to pay over six months, on and off. We'll get a hundred dollars on a thousand-dollar rent.
ARNOLD: Graves says she's not evicting any tenants who try to pay what they can and stay in communication with her, but that means that she's losing money. The rents coming in don't cover her mortgage payments and paying the staff.
GRAVES: Then we had the freeze in Houston, and the hot water heater gave out. And so that was a $22,000 investment we had to make with no income. And then I worry, how am I going to pay that loan if this goes on for much longer?
ARNOLD: Graves says a bigger property that she manages for another owner is hundreds of thousands of dollars behind on revenue, with all the unpaid rents and COVID-related costs.
GRAVES: It's scary. It's a scary situation.
ARNOLD: So Graves says many of her properties have had to cut services. If a security gate breaks, she doesn't have the $5,000 to fix it. The pools and fitness rooms at some properties are closed. They can't afford the extra cleaning and staff related to COVID. Then, she says, the people who are actually paying rent get mad about that stuff and take it out on her property managers.
GRAVES: People are stressed out. People are angry. People are home more.
ARNOLD: So Graves really wants her tenants to be able to get help. Between the last two COVID relief bills, Congress has approved upwards of $50 billion in rental assistance money, and that is just now starting to become available. So Graves is literally out knocking on her renters' doors.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
GRAVES: Management. Hi, I'm Stephanie from the office.
UNIDENTIFIED TENANT: Hey.
GRAVES: Hi. I had left you a packet on some rental assistance, and I just...
ARNOLD: Graves has set up computers in the offices at her properties to help people apply, and other landlords are doing that, too.
KELLE SENYE: February looked really scary for us.
ARNOLD: Kelle Senye oversees about 400 affordable housing units around Albuquerque, N.M. She says more than a quarter of the tenants are behind on their rent, and she's just found out that residents can now apply for the money approved by Congress.
SENYE: It was, like, this mad rush yesterday to, like, make sure that all of our residents know that this assistance is available.
ARNOLD: Senye says she's not evicting anybody for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic, but many other landlords have not been so understanding. Many have been aggressive about evicting people who've lost work and fallen behind on rent, and so housing groups say protections are needed as this money gets flowing.
PETER HEPBURN: Every one of these eviction cases carries serious consequences for the people who are losing their homes.
ARNOLD: Peter Hepburn is a researcher at Princeton University's Eviction Lab, which is tracking evictions during the pandemic. Currently, there's an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aimed at stopping evictions, but he says that has loopholes, and it expires in less than two weeks.
HEPBURN: What we're worried about is that if those protections are allowed to lapse, we could see, you know, a million eviction cases filed in very short order across the country.
ARNOLD: That is a million people, families, getting an eviction on their record. That hurts their ability to find other housing, hurts their credit, and research has shown that evictions spread COVID because people double-up with other families and live in more crowded situations. So now that this help has been approved by Congress...
HEPBURN: We have $50 billion in emergency rental assistance that's making its way through the system. There's a lot of damage that could be avoided if we took the time and we allowed that money to work.
ARNOLD: To avoid that damage, he says the CDC order should be extended and strengthened to stop evictions for now because it's likely to take months for that rental assistance money to reach many of the people who need it.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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