Congress should help renters and keep Alaska’s economy afloat

The Senate and House are engaged in down-to-the-wire negotiations on the next round of coronavirus aid. The House in May offered the HEROES Act, a comprehensive $3 trillion aid package. The Senate countered this week with the HEALS Act, a pared-down $1 trillion proposal. As talks move forward, Senate leadership should be aware that certain provisions in HEROES are critical for shielding Americans from additional turmoil. One key section the Senate should not jettison is $100 billion to keep renters in their homes.

Most renters in Alaska and across the U.S. have been spared the heartbreak of eviction so far by the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, one of the few bright spots in the federal pandemic response. As the nation hemorrhaged jobs, CARES provided unemployment insurance, paycheck protection, relief to tribes and aid for distribution by local governments. Alaska received $1.5 billion in CARES aid. In addition, the state distributed early Permanent Fund dividends. Eviction moratoriums put in place by all levels of government also helped. But the pandemic will outlast the patchwork of assistance that has so far helped keep so many renters in their homes.

Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski must continue to protect renters in the next aid package. The alternative is the dreaded “eviction tsunami” predicted by the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., plus more strain on the already overburdened nonprofits and government agencies helping our fellow Alaskans who are already homeless and food insecure.

Why focus on renters? One third of Alaskans live in rental housing. As a group, renters are more likely than homeowners to work in industries decimated by the crisis, such as retail and travel. In Alaska, one in four renters are extremely low income, earning less than 30% of median income. The federal Housing and Urban Development agency counts two in four Alaska renters as “cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. Aid targeted to renters is means-tested, ensuring that public dollars go to those most in need.

Alaska was already in a delicate economic state before the pandemic. With oil prices tanking, a strained state budget and the visitor industry missing its critical summer season, we can’t afford a housing crisis. The payments Alaska’s renters make each month keep local economies humming. Rent flows to property managers, construction firms, local governments and lenders. A large share of Alaska’s lower-cost rental homes are in duplexes and other modest buildings owned by “mom and pop” landlords who rely on rent payments for income or retirement. Unlike bigger corporate owners, they usually lack deep cash reserves and other assets to cushion them against months of unpaid rent.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that renters in Alaska who’ve lost work due to the pandemic will need $164 million in emergency support between now and next summer. The $100 billion proposed by HEROES could readily cover the needs of Alaska’s renters. If targeted renter assistance hits a political wall, Congress should ensure other forms of aid, such as unemployment insurance, remain at levels sufficient for keeping renters and others who have lost their jobs afloat.

Alaska’s case count is rising to record highs and many of those on the front lines — in health care, retail, and child care — are renters. Many have accepted low-paying jobs whose worth to our country is severely undervalued. Many were a paycheck away from homelessness even before the pandemic. As the nation bends under the stress of covid, renters deserve a guarantee from Congress that they will stay housed. They deserve homes where they can hunker down safely, homeschool their kids, store their emergency food, and cope with the sadness of it all.


Jeannette Lee is a senior researcher at the Sightline Institute, a public policy think tank, where she focuses on housing and democracy. She is also a former business reporter for the ADN and the Anchorage bureau of the Associated Press.

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