What a democratically managed congress may imply for tenants struggling amid the pandemic

Jon Ossoff and David Perdue, Georgia Senate nominees.

Reuters; Getty Images

If the Democrats get a majority in the Senate, a range of relief efforts aimed at tenants struggling under the pandemic – including a right to advice for evacuated people and a larger pot of money to rent back – will have better odds.

It has already been announced that Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, has won the US Senate runoff in Georgia. John Ossoff, the other Democrat in the race, leads Republican Senator David Perdue with 98% of the expected vote, but NBC said the race was too short to be called. If Ossoff wins, the Senate will be split evenly, giving the Democrats control of Congress as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would be able to cast the casting vote.

After months of negotiations, the Democrats and Republicans reached an agreement last month on another stimulus package that extended the national eviction ban through January and provided $ 25 billion in rental support.

That relief was a fraction of what the Democrats had been pressing for.

The country’s rent arrears are estimated at nearly $ 70 billion, and one in five adult tenants is still behind after months of record losses and downtime. Recent research has also found that evictions in one area lead to significantly more coronavirus cases and deaths.

“If they take over the Senate, Democrats will have a rare opportunity to end the eviction crisis directly and quickly and prevent serious damage to tenants and landlords nationwide,” said Emily Benfer, professor of law at Wake Forest University.

The Democrats’ vision for a May stimulus plan called the Heroes Act that President-elect Joe Biden would propose would provide $ 100 billion in rental support. Renters could use this money for up to six months of rent back and late fees. Other tenants would get help securing new homes with funds to cover their moving expenses or to repair their loans. Another $ 75 billion fund would be set up to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.

The package also envisaged a nationwide ban on evictions for 12 months.

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Meanwhile, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, as a Senator, passed a law in July banning all evictions and foreclosures for one year. The bill would also allow tenants who are 18 months in arrears to make their missed payments, and in the meantime prohibit rent increases and late fees.

Renters facing an eviction would also be guaranteed a right to legal advice under Harris’ plan, which housing advocates have long called for.

A New Orleans study found that more than 65% of renters were evicted without legal representation, compared with less than 15% of those who had a lawyer in court.

“Unlike most eviction prevention measures, the bill includes a subpoena from the AG and an enforcement agency and guarantees tenants the right to legal assistance,” Benfer said of Harris’ plan.

As president, Biden would also be able to assist tenants through executive action. For example, President Donald Trump extended the eviction ban in this way in August.

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