A rental assistance program in the bill is key for helping millions of struggling renters at risk of losing their homes in the middle of winter as the pandemic rages on.



Unless there's more help from Congress coming, millions of Americans who rent their homes could be evicted in the middle of the winter. We don't know if the COVID relief bill will be approved. Congress negotiated for seven months, struck a deal, and then the president called it a disgrace. But what's in this legislation that could help renters? NPR's Chris Arnold has been looking into it. Good morning, Chris.


KING: What's in the relief bill that could help people from being evicted?

ARNOLD: Well, there's $25 billion for rental assistance. We haven't seen that before. And that goes to states and cities. Renters apply, the money goes to the landlords. And the money is supposed to go to people who need it the most based on recent income. The bill also extends unemployment benefits. And 12 million Americans are set to lose those unemployment benefits the day after Christmas. That would just be a colossal disaster. So avoiding that prevents a lot of evictions, too.

I talked to Christina Rosales with Texas Housers. It's a low-income housing nonprofit. And it's in Texas, where we've seen thousands of evictions happening already. She says this bill is a big help.

CHRISTINA ROSALES: It will provide relief to millions of people who've been struggling to pay rent. Tenants can qualify for up to 15 months of rental assistance. So tenants who are behind six, seven, eight, nine months of rent could be covered by what's in this bill.

ARNOLD: She also says that $25 billion is not going to be enough. That's going to need to be replenished. But, you know, it's a good start. Also, there's a question mark. How long will this take to get up and running? And that's going to depend a lot on the state and the city.

KING: Now, this bill, as I understand it, also extends an order from the CDC that's supposed to prevent evictions because that is a bad thing to happen during a pandemic. But it only extends it for a month, through the end of January. Is that really going to help?

ARNOLD: Yeah, I think the hope from the housing advocates here is that once the Biden administration gets in, that this will get extended further into the future and also strengthened because the CDC order's a little flimsy, and it's not working in a lot of places. People are still getting evicted. The CDC could also extend this by itself. It doesn't need another act of Congress.

Also, interestingly, the rules of the rental assistance program appear to require that the renter is still in the property, has not been evicted yet. So that creates a pretty powerful incentive not to kick people out. If I'm a landlord and I'm owed five months of back rent, that's a strong incentive to keep the person there.

So you put all of this together, it's a pretty powerful package that should help a lot of people.

KING: You've been talking to people who are at risk of eviction or who are going to owe a lot of back rent. Tell me what you've been hearing.

ARNOLD: Well, I talked to one person in Seattle who, after losing her job as a hairstylist, owes $10,000 in back rent.

ANA BRAXTON: It's definitely a relief for me.

ARNOLD: That's Ana Braxton (ph). Her husband also had his hours cut back. And they've got two kids.

BRAXTON: I mean, obviously, the timing is significant just because it is Christmas this week. So I would say just being able to be like, OK, like, we can still get certain things for Christmas. We can do this. We'll still be OK. We're still going to be afloat.

KING: And what about landlords who haven't been getting rent money? How are they reacting?

ARNOLD: Well, landlords have been complaining throughout the pandemic that, look; there are these various eviction moratoriums, but who's going to pay the rent if the tenant's not paying the rent? Well, now there's $25 billion to pay the rent. And landlord groups that I talked to are very happy about that. The bill, though, as we've been reporting, has hit this last-minute snag, that the president's been attacking it. So we're just going to have to see what happens there.

KING: For sure. NPR's Chris Arnold. Thanks, Chris. We appreciate it.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.