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Biden Faces Tough Task of Fixing Housing Crisis

Cancel rent campaigns, millions at risk of eviction, prospective homebuyers shut out by high prices. U.S. housing is in upheaval, but President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to give it fresh legs.

(CN) — Cancel rent campaigns, millions at risk of eviction, prospective homebuyers shut out by high prices. U.S. housing is in upheaval, but President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to give it fresh legs.

Tanisha Swinton, 43, of Houston, is scheduled for trial in January in her eviction case. But she's determined to avoid it by catching up on rent, all $5,000 of it.

"I'm in full work mode. I'm trying to get two jobs. I'm trying to make sure I have it all paid," said Swinton, who recently found work with a health care company making calls to patients after she was laid off due to the pandemic.

After months of living in extended-stay hotels with her two daughters, she thought she'd found stability when she rented a three-bedroom home in July and moved in, taking the landlord at her word she would fix the place up.

But her landlord stopped sending maintenance men over after she missed a few rent payments, leaving the interior in shambles with rainwater in the ceiling she believes may have sprouted mold that's to blame for her 12-year-old daughter's constant headaches.

"I still have walls that are unpainted, doors that aren't fixed, I mean the ceiling looks like it's about to cave in the living room. I mean it's just unreal," she said in a phone interview.

Charitable organizations tried to help. They offered to pay $2,200 of her rent, but her landlord rejected it, opting instead to pursue eviction. And Swinton could not receive the aid directly, it had to go straight to her landlord.

She cannot be evicted until January thanks to a September order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meant to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Renters who attest in a sworn declaration to losing much of their household income, not being able to pay rent and that eviction would leave them homeless or force them to live in cramped quarters with relatives, qualify for a reprieve through the end of the year.

The form saved Swinton at an eviction hearing last month from a judge ready to move on her.

"She was getting ready to put me out. She gave me 10 days and I spoke up. I said, 'They aren't taking my form. They're not working with me on payments,'" said Swinton, who had no attorney representing her.

"So she said, 'No they can't reject the form. They have to take the form.'"

Swinton is one of more than 6.5 million U.S. renters at risk of eviction, according to a Nov. 19 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law.

Urging Congress to pass rental assistance legislation before lawmakers recess for Christmas break, the report estimates the downstream public costs of a wave of evictions would be $62 to $129 billion.

That includes emergency shelter for the displaced; medical care, as the stress of homelessness aggravates their medical conditions or leads to Covid-19 infections; foster care of children removed from their parents; and juvenile detention costs, as homeless children are more likely to be arrested.

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris arrive at an event to introduce their nominees and appointees to economic policy posts at The Queen theater, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Biden wants to help renters stay in their homes. A former public defender, the president-elect says he'll push for passage of the Legal Assistance to Prevent Evictions Act, which would help tenants get lawyers for eviction cases and encourage local governments to start eviction diversion programs.

Counsel for eviction cases is hard to find for tenants even in Houston, seat of Harris County, with its dozens of law firms, three law schools and numerous legal aid groups.

"In Harris County there are 48 evictions per day, and, this year, more than nearly 27,000 eviction cases have been filed. Attorneys represent less than 3% of tenants in eviction proceedings," Harris County's chief administrator Lina Hidalgo said Thursday in a statement, citing reports by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.


Biden is also calling for increased funding for the government's Section 8 rental housing aid program. He says that due to underfunding, roughly 75% of households eligible for the assistance do not receive it.

The incoming president is not focusing solely on renters. He also wants to give a leg up to first-time homebuyers by providing a $15,000 tax credit they could receive when they buy their home.

But for more people to have a chance at ownership the nation needs to address its shortage of affordable housing.

This graph shows median sales price of U.S. homes since the early 1960s. (Image via St. Louis Federal Reserve)

Over the last 10 years, the median U.S. home price grew from around $200,000 to more than $320,000, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Housing experts lay the blame on spiraling building permit costs.

Ohio Republican Congressman Steve Stivers is on the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees real estate and public housing.

He said local building codes are the single biggest driver of the housing affordability crisis, accounting for around 30% of building costs, and Congress needs to simplify and streamline codes nationwide to drive prices down, speaking Nov. 17 on a "Building the Dream" forum put on by National Association of Home Builders and the political news outlet The Hill.

Darius Brown, owner of Phoenix Builders in Virginia, laid out the challenges facing homebuilders in another "Building the Dream" report by The Hill and NAHB early this year.

"There was a time that we could obtain a permit in a day, or a fairly short period of time," he said. "And quite often now those permits take weeks if not three to four months to obtain. And by the time we have a building permit in place, those expenses could be anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000, sometimes more than that depending on the scope of the project."

Biden's housing plan will be spearheaded by his Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary.

He's yet to name one but of his list of five candidates, four of them are Black, including Congresswoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

President Donald Trump's HUD Secretary Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, has kept a low-profile over his nearly four years in office. But he did anger Democrats in July when he announced HUD was replacing a rule former President Barack Obama's administration established in 2015 requiring cities and towns, in order to receive federal housing or urban development funding, to analyze the demographics of their neighborhoods and ferret out housing discrimination and issue reports about how they would address housing inequities.

Calling the Obama rule "complicated, costly, and ineffective," the Trump administration and Carson suspended it in 2018 before replacing it in September with the Preserving Community and Neighborhood Choice Rule, which says cities and counties need only show they are taking action "rationally related to promoting fair housing" to qualify for HUD funds.

Biden, who served as Obama's vice president, says as president he will reinstate the tougher 2015 rule.

Swinton, the Houston renter, is one who may benefit from Biden's housing policies. She said with her landlord refusing to accept rent aid for her and trying to evict her, she is ready to buy a place of her own.

"I've had so much bad rental experience from properties, the landlords, it's just crazy," she said. "I'm trying to get my credit up now and focus on buying a house so come July, if I'm still in here, I can just leave and go to my own house."

A for sale sign stands in front of a house, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Westwood, Mass. U.S. long-term mortgage rates edged lower this week, reaching record lows for the 14th time this year against the backdrop of the pandemic-ravaged economy. Mortgage finance giant Freddie Mac says on Thursday, Dec. 3, the average rate on the 30-year fixed-rate home loan slipped to 2.71% from 2.72% last week. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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