COVID-19’s impact on the world has been unsparing: it has taken thousands of loved ones and overburdened healthcare systems. Its economic impact has been no less devastating. Government-mandated shutdowns have forced many small businesses to shut their doors. Those lucky enough to remain open have seen a marked decrease in customers. A McKinsey & Company survey polling small and medium-sized businesses found that 59% of small or medium-sized businesses reported experiencing a “significant” drop in personal and business income. 25% had faced such a precipitous drop that they expected they would have to file for bankruptcy in the coming months. This impact will have a broad effect: these businesses represent 48% of the U.S. economy and employ over 60 million people.
COVID-19 has also been unsparing when it comes to consumers. Not only are those employed by small or mid-sized businesses losing their jobs, but even those working at large international companies are also losing their jobs or facing pay cuts. Self-employed individuals have seen their business opportunities vanish. Right now, because of moratoria on foreclosures, evictions, and debt collection, these issues are looming when the overall economy begins to resume. Without any intervening forces, a wave of evictions, foreclosures, repossessions, and bankruptcies is likely to come.
Currently, little protects consumers and small businesses during emergencies or disasters. While larger institutions are expected to have plans, even participating in stress tests with regulators, small businesses usually do not have such protective measures. Indeed, because so many operate on a thin profit margin, investing in plans to address something that seems unlikely to ever happen may seem like a waste of money. Moreover, consumers are not always going to be financially prepared either. The average American has $8,863 in their savings account. This number decreases with age: for example, young single adults under 34 have an average of $2,729 in savings. There are racial disparities too, with an average of $1,500 for Hispanic and $1,000 for Black savings account balances. (Note that this data does not include the unbanked, which is largely composed of Black and Hispanic households.)
In March 2020, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced the Small Business and Consumer Debt Collection Emergency Relief Act of 2020 (the “Act”). The Act amends the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) to provide temporary forbearance periods after “major disasters or emergencies.” The Act could provide much-needed relief to small businesses and American consumers by expanding on current protections currently provided by the FDCPA.
The FDCPA became law in 1978. Its purpose was to crack down on abusive debt collection tactics. In drafting the law, Congress found that abusive debt collection practices led to “personal bankruptcies, to marital instability, to the loss of jobs, and to invasions of individual privacy.” The FDCPA covers several types of consumer debts: mortgage, credit card, student loan, and medical debts, just to name a few. Debts owed by businesses are currently not covered by the FDCPA.
One of the biggest protections afforded under the FDCPA is limiting how and when a debt collector can contact a debtor. Debt collectors cannot harass debtors, misrepresent what can occur if the debtor fails to pay, or contact the debtor in the middle of the night. While the FDCPA is imperfect—consumers regularly report violations—it provides an avenue of recourse and is regularly enforced.
The Act’s Proposals
The Act seeks to amend the FDCPA in several ways. First, the Act amends section 3 of the FDCPA to restrict debt collection during a national disaster or emergency. The Act defines “national disaster or emergency” two ways: (1) one declared by the president under section 401 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act; or (2) “an emergency involving Federal primary responsibility that is determined to exist by the President” under section 501 of that act. Next, the Act prohibits debt collectors from numerous actions ranging from charging higher fees or interest rates to seizing the property or asset at issue. Moreover, the Act pauses any legal action against the debtor, even if the proceeding began before the disaster was declared. Finally and crucially, the Act extends FDCPA protections during national disasters or emergencies to small businesses.
The Act is a way of addressing some of the consumer protection shortcomings of the CARES Act. For example, there is a 120 day moratorium on foreclosures and evictions, but only for those who have federally-backed mortgages, live in buildings financed by federally-backed mortgages, or receive rental funding through a federal program. While this covers a significant number of individuals and homes, about 30% of Americans are left out of this provision. The debt collection moratorium under the Act would extend to those Americans. It also addresses the issue the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear: small businesses suffer when they are forced to shut down, as they may not always have the resources or option to continue operating virtually. Their financial troubles largely came as the result of a forced shutdown. More generally, the Act’s amendments can cover future national emergencies or pandemics.
While this is not an overall solution to COVID-19’s economic impact, it can provide some relief to consumers and small businesses. It may allow people to be more understanding of opening up gradually rather than quickly, too. While it does not solve a reduced or lack of income, having some assurance that the car will not be repossessed or a debt collector will not be regularly calling can provide some much needed relief in what has been a stressful time. Currently, debtors do not have such relief. Despite the pandemic, debt collectors have still been calling consumers. In Massachusetts, the Attorney General’s Office sought to ban debt collection during the height of the pandemic. However, a federal judge ruled against the state’s emergency resolution. FTC guidance is not particularly helpful either: it recommends talking things out with the debt collector and asking that they stop calling. Congress has already done a lot through the CARES Act to help consumers during the pandemic. To further assist them, Congress should pass Senator Brown’s bill.
*Adam Pascal et al., Rent, on, Rent Original Major Picture Soundtrack (Warner Records 2005).
Unprecedented Rental Relief in Unprecedented Times
The novel coronavirus is disrupting so much of life in Boston, MA. From school and business closings to rising unemployment rates, more residents than ever are concerned than ever with affording basic essentials—including the rent due on the first of each month. The reality of how to pay for rent is substantial in Boston, where an estimated sixty percent of over seven-hundred thousand residents rent, making it the fourth most densely populated region in the United States after the New York Metro Area, Greater Los Angeles, and South Florida Metro Area.
As of April 20, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation placing a moratorium on non-emergency residential evictions and foreclosures during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Under this moratorium, landlords are not able to file eviction notices for the next 120 days, or for 45 days from the lifting of Gov. Baker’s emergency declaration, whichever comes first. Additionally, the moratorium bans late fees and negative reporting to credit-rating agencies for unpaid rents if tenants can prove pandemic-related issues with late payments.
Figure 1: Baker signs bill blocking evictions during coronavirus crisis (Tim Logan, Baker signs bill blocking evictions during coronavirus crisis, Boston Globe (Apr. 20, 2020))
Additionally, the federal government has passed a $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package—the CARES Act—including a 120-day moratorium on most evictions at properties that receive federal subsidies or that federal entities insure. Notably, the CARES Act does not apply to eviction proceedings in progress before President signed the legislation on March 27th, or to eviction cases meeting a number of exceptions discussed in the Act.
On April 4, Mayor Martin Walsh announced $3 million in city funds to help Boston residents at risk of losing their rental housing due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Rental Relief Fund is managed by the Office of Housing Stability, in partnership with non-profit partners Metro Housing Boston and Neighborhood of Affordable Housing. This program will provide eligible applicants with up to $4,000 in financial assistance to be used for rent. Additionally, the funding will only be available to households earning less than 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), which is $72,000 for a two-person household. A significant portion of these funds are reserved for households with extremely low incomes (under $25,000 for a single-person household), and very low-incomes or less than $42,000 for a single person (50 percent AMI). "In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a national crisis at a scale not seen in our lifetime, it is imperative that all levels of government exercise all possible tools to ensure the health and safety of our residents, and to keep them stably housed," said Mayor Walsh. (Thomas Stackpole, How Did Renting in Boston Become Such a Nightmare?, Boston Magazine (May 30, 2020))
The Rent is Due Every Day: Framework Changes to the Rental Housing Market
The efforts of the federal and MA government to address the needs of renters in Boston are necessary measures to help residents maintain stable housing in these unprecedented times. Nevertheless, it is merely band-aid for the greater problem of the daily struggle for low-income Boston residents to make rent, or even establish tenancies.
The Commonwealth provides financial assistance through the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (“RAFT”) program in which up to $4,000 may be awarded to applicants to establish tenancies. However, with Fair Market Rent (“FMR”) rising in Massachusetts to $1,425 for a one-bedroom and $1,758 for a two-bedroom apartment, the $4,000 allocation from the RAFT program may not be enough to overcome the high bar to starting tenancies in Massachusetts for low-income families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The barriers to entry establishing a tenancy in MA include: the first full month of rent, last full month of rent, security deposit equal to the first month’s rent, broker fee equal to first month rent, and one-time fee covering installation of a new key and lock. The cumulative effect of these fees requires upwards of four months of rent to gain tenancy in Massachusetts. The impact of this legislation disproportionately bar low-income residents from securing and maintaining affordable housing.
When federal and state aid to low-income residents is not sufficient to help families begin tenancies, it is imperative to look to alleviating some of these barriers to entry to affordable housing. In addition to being the fourth most densely populated region in the United States, Boston also is also boasts the fourth-highest average rental market. Compared to the rental markets of New York City and Los Angeles, the Boston market imposes the broker fee, equal to one full month’s rent, which may be borne by the tenant. This differs to New York’s recent ban on broker fees, and Los Angeles’ burden shifting of broker fees to the landlord.
Massachusetts should consider following in the footsteps of their metropolitan neighbors and propose legislative action banning broker fees in order to decrease the burden to tenants establishing tenancy. In the alternative, the legislature should support the proposed bill H.4452: An Act Relative to Consumer Rights of Renters which shifts the burden of paying broker fees to the landlord with the following language: “[t]his fee shall only be paid by the lessor of the residential dwelling and shall not be transferred to or paid by an other party.”
The novel coronavirus is truly a pandemic affecting every area of daily life, but it’s disparate impact to low-income families towards their struggle to afford housing illuminates a deeper issue that needs to be addressed with expediency. The cost of securing and maintaining a tenancy in Boston is simply too high and not sustainable. As a result, the legislature should tackle broker fees directly to allow more residents the opportunity to initiate affordable tenancies in Boston. This may take the form of eliminating broker fees in their entirety, or shifting the burden to landlords to pay the fee, but ultimately the legislature should take action to protect the most vulnerable member in this time—low-income residents trying to establish and maintain affordable housing for themselves and their families.