Wednesday, June 23, 2021
June 23, 2021

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In Our View: Feds’ rental aid example of systemic racism

The Columbian

Since early in the coronavirus pandemic, elected officials have braced for a crisis once eviction moratoriums expire. While a state effort to prevent the calamity warrants attention, so does recent federal legislation to address the issue.

The synopsis: Most renters live in big cities, and a large percentage of them are people of color. But federal assistance passed in December will disproportionately benefit white people in largely rural states, according to an analysis by USA Today.

The story is yet another example of how systemic racism — intentional or not — underlies our economic system.

Late last year, Congress approved $25 billion to help renters avoid eviction. The action is much-needed, with an estimated 20 percent of U.S. renters behind on their payments. In Washington state, according to a January survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, 14 percent of renters say they are in arrears.

Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, wrote: “The typical delinquent renter will be almost four months and $5,600 behind on their monthly rent and utilities, with another $50 per month of late-payment penalties.”

The economic shutdown precipitated by the pandemic has disproportionately affected hourly workers and service industry employees, who are more likely to be renters. No paycheck, no rent.

Because of that, most states imposed moratoriums on evictions for failure to pay rent; renters still may be evicted for other reasons. Washington’s moratorium expires at the end of March, and state lawmakers are exploring avenues for mitigating potential problems.

Meanwhile, Congress’ approach provides some fascinating insight to the inner workings of American politics.

In passing the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Congress calculated total aid to medium and large states based on total population. In so doing, lawmakers ignored the fact that heavily populated states such as California and New York tend to have a higher percentage of renters than, say, Wyoming. Those renters also are more likely to be people of color.

Then Congress set a minimum of $200 million per state — a common practice referred to as “small-state minimum.” While residents of small states — typically conservative — are prone to criticizing federal assistance, they disproportionately benefit from it.

The result, according to USA Today, is that New York renters eligible for assistance will receive an average of $378 — enough to cover three days of the typical rent in Manhattan. In Wyoming, the least-populated state, the average payment will be $2,935 — enough for six months of the average rent. The next-highest payouts will be in Vermont, Alaska, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana — like Wyoming, states with small urban populations and small minority populations.

In Washington and Oregon — states with high renter populations because they are desirable places to live and attract newcomers— assistance will be relatively minimal. Oregon ranks fourth in smallest average payment, and Washington is sixth at $483 per renter.

That is only the latest federal assistance; state lawmakers are making rental assistance a priority as the March 31 deadline looms. An extension of the moratorium and financial assistance are being considered as the Legislature tries to avoid a tsunami of evictions that would only exacerbate the state’s homelessness crisis.

The hope is that local solutions will be more equitable than those from the federal government.