Shortly after being inaugurated, President Joseph Biden immediately utilized numerous executive actions to address the nation’s most critical issues – the COVID-19 public health and economic crises – and to undo actions taken during the previous administration. Among the executive actions and orders taken in Biden’s first week in office are several moves on both immediate housing needs and long-term structural issues.
The executive actions to address urgent housing needs include:
- Extending the national CDC order halting evictions to March 31st;
- Extending moratoria on evictions and foreclosures in properties with federally-backed mortgages to March 31st;
- Extending the application period for homeowners to request forbearances on federally-backed mortgages (FHA, VA, USDA home loans); and
- Increasing the percentage of costs (from 75% to 100%) that FEMA will reimburse to local agencies for providing non-congregate sheltering options to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
To address deeper structural policy issues that affect housing systems, the Biden administration ordered these actions:
- Rescind actions taken under the Trump administration to prohibit research on racial disparities and training on issues of racial equity, diversity, and inclusion;
- Commit administration to redressing federal government’s role in the creation and maintenance of systems and structures that are racially discriminatory; and
- Order HUD to immediately assess the impacts of recent HUD rule changes to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing and Disparate Impact rules and to then take actions to combat racially discriminatory impacts.
The immediateness and swiftness by the Biden administration to take these first steps in the early days of Biden’s term are promising signs. These actions will surely prevent millions of people from losing their housing and begin the work to undo damage to the Fair Housing Act initiated under the Trump administration. However, the executive branch can only do so much and for so long. For these steps to be impactful at the state and local levels vigilance and persistence are necessary.
Issues That Stand Out
While the CDC order has definitely prevented thousands of North Carolinians from losing their homes, its enforcement and application across the state’s 100 county courthouses is uneven and inconsistent, despite an order by the Governor to affirm its applicability.
The $25 billion in rental assistance enacted in the year-end omnibus legislation, of which North Carolina stands to receive $700 million, continues to move slowly through bureaucratic processes. While the implementation guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department creates more questions than it answers, that should not prevent decision makers in the Governor’s office and the General Assembly from implementing plans to immediately get rental and utility assistance into the hands of those that need it. As of this writing, it is unclear what agency will be administering this rental assistance. The sooner this decision is made, the sooner that administrators can begin in earnest to develop program design and processes. Whereas North Carolina has yet to decide on the path for the latest rental assistance, states like Minnesota and Nebraska are readying to open their programs to applicants on February 1st, in just a handful of days.
Lastly, the needs of homeowners also struggling to afford basic needs have gone largely unmet. The forbearance extensions and foreclosure moratoria are certainly useful. However, these measures simply delay potential financial harm. Like tenants behind on rent, homeowners in forbearance are still ultimately responsible for the accruing mortgage payments. The federal and state governments have yet to meaningfully address what could potentially be a wave of foreclosures. The infrastructure exists within North Carolina to immediately provide mortgage assistance and housing counseling to support homeowners and prevent long-term personal and neighborhood devastation.
While the challenges above are immense and daunting, we are in a position with regards to housing not seen before. National and local awareness of housing issues are at an all-time high. At the federal level, there is support for housing issues not seen in decades. At the state level, resources and infrastructure exist to begin the needed implementation to provide critical housing assistance to renters and homeowners.