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After months of fruitless negotiations, the latest COVID relief package is emerging from Congress as a stopgap measure meant to hold the nation over until President-elect Joe Biden takes office and Congress begins a new session next year.
For the time being, hopes are pinned on a $908 billion proposal drawn up by a bipartisan group of moderate lawmakers that includes only a fraction of the funding that advocates say is necessary to contain a widespread hunger and housing crisis in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed more than 280,000 lives in the U.S.
About 83 million adults — 34 percent of the country — are already struggling to afford basic necessities such as food and rent as job growth slows and dozens of pandemic relief provisions are set to expire before the end of the month, including emergency unemployment insurance and paid sick leave. If Congress does not act, 12 million people could have their unemployment payments cut off the day after Christmas.
Analysts say nearly 12 million people are thousands of dollars behind on rent. Between 30 million and 40 million renters are at risk of losing their homes when a moratorium on evictions set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expires at the end of the year, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. While the moratorium has helped keep people in their homes, housing activists say it contains loopholes exploited by landlords.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pushed for an even slimmer $500 billion package and had not signaled support for the compromise bill by Tuesday morning, raising fears that no relief may be coming at all, according to Bloomberg. Congress must also vote to fund the government before year-end deadlines, and lawmakers are moving to pass a one-week funding bill to buy more time for budget and coronavirus negotiations that are coming down to the wire.
By the end of the year, an estimated 50 million Americans will experience food insecurity, according to Feeding America, a national anti-hunger organization. That’s about one in six people. Across the country, lines of cars waiting for food donations and stretching for miles have underscored the severity of the unfolding crisis.
The $908 billion package is less than half the cost of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in March that provided stimulus checks starting at $1,200 to most taxpayers. House Democrats passed another $2.2 trillion package in October after passing a $3 trillion package in May, but both went nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The latest bipartisan deal does not include another round of $1,200 stimulus checks as many had hoped. The first round of checks approved by Congress in the spring temporarily kept millions of people out of poverty, but the pandemic has dragged on since.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other leading Democrats have thrown their support behind the compromise package and promised to pass more comprehensive legislation next year. Some Republicans are also reportedly coalescing around the proposal.
“This is long overdue, and it’s not enough,” said Sarah Saadian, the vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in an interview.
The compromise package is a stopgap relief bill, not a stimulus, and progressives say Congress must provide direct cash payments to stimulate the economy and protect struggling households from financial ruin.
On Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders said the package must be improved to gain his support. Sanders said the proposal does not come close to providing enough financial relief for struggling households and contains liability protections for corporations and other employers whose workers are sickened by COVID-19 on the job. Critics say the liability protections would provide legal cover for nursing homes and meatpacking plants where COVID has quickly spread and killed workers, but the protections are a top priority for Republicans, who are eager to keep people on the job despite a terrifying surge of infections nationwide.
“Tens of millions of Americans living in desperation today would receive absolutely no financial help from this proposal,” Sanders said in a statement Friday. “That is not acceptable.”
Currently, 12 percent of adults report that their households do not have enough to eat, and 40 percent of children live in households that either cannot afford enough food or are behind on rent, according to analysis of census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Rates of financial hardship are higher among households of color, and 49 percent of Black households reported that it was somewhat or very difficult to pay for household expenses in recent weeks. That’s nearly twice the rate of white households and a reflection of longstanding inequities in employment, education and housing.
The $908 billion compromise does contain several of the relief priorities for which Democrats have been pushing. The legislation would temporarily extend emergency unemployment benefits until March with a $300 weekly bonus, preventing millions of households from falling off a fiscal cliff. The package also contains $160 billion in badly needed funding for state, local and tribal governments, which have struggled to maintain services and tax revenue through the pandemic.
“Cities and states are going to use these funds to keep people in their homes and that’s a really important critical resource, but Congress and the incoming Biden administration need to make it a top priority to come back after the New Year and work on a real, comprehensive bill,” Saadian said. “This can’t be the end-all be-all of COVID relief, it’s just not enough.”
The compromise package contains $25 billion for housing assistance for renters, but the National Low Income Housing Coalition says at least $100 billion is ultimately needed to combat a housing crisis that is only growing during the pandemic. Nearly 19 million low-income renter households were already cost-burdened before the pandemic hit, and now millions of people have lost jobs and other forms of income.
Kamau Walton, an organizer with Right to the City Alliance, a national coalition of grassroots housing justice groups, said Democrats must also push for a much stronger eviction moratorium than the one currently put in place by the CDC. Housing justice activists across the country have been busy fighting evictions despite the moratorium, and evictions have already led to hundreds of thousands of additional COVID-19 cases, according to recently published research.
Some people “don’t want to deal with facing a sheriff if they are physically evicted, so they are being harassed by landlords and decide that the better option for them is just to leave,” Walton said in an interview.
Walton said a broad coalition of housing justice groups is demanding that Democrats push for a “blanket” eviction moratorium that prevents all evictions until after the pandemic is over, along with a national moratorium on utility shutoffs. Under the current moratorium, Walton said, renters must preemptively file paperwork to stop an eviction. Congress should change that to put the burden of proof on landlords, Walton said.
Walton said renters also need help paying rent and utility bills. If the stopgap relief package passes with only $25 billion in renter assistance, Saadian said funding should be targeted toward the lowest-income renters who are at greatest risk of becoming homeless.