WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando on Tuesday introduced new legislation that would automatically halt evictions and foreclosures during federally-declared emergencies.

What You Need To Know

If signed into law, the Federal Disaster Housing Stability Act of 2021 would stop all evictions on rental properties, as well as foreclosures on properties with federally backed mortgages, according to a press release sent by Demings’ office.

“Disasters happen, but evictions during a disaster don’t need to,” Demings wrote in a statement. “We should not allow Americans to go homeless due to emergencies outside of their control.”

The bill, co-led by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson (D-District 5) is similar to another piece of legislation introduced by the lawmakers in September. That bill died in Congress without receiving a vote. 

Demings’ new bill would help provide a desperately needed safety net for vulnerable renters in times of crisis, housing advocates say.

“What we see after every major disaster is that there’s an enormous risk of housing instability, especially among the lowest-income and most marginalized renters,” said Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The nation’s affordable housing crisis places many renters at a major disadvantage when it comes to facing any type of disaster, Saadian said.

“Households are spending 50%, 60%, 70% of their income on rent, which means that any sort of crisis — a major hurricane or even a broken-down car — can cause them to fall behind on their rent or get evicted,” Saadian said.

But tenants aren't the only ones suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts. Many housing providers have been badly impacted, too, struggling to stay on top of operational costs while missing out on months of rental payments that went unpaid. 

Bonnie Smetzer, executive vice president of JMG Realty, says multifamily providers have been crushed by skyrocketing material and appliance prices during COVID-19. She opposes Demings’ bill, saying state governors should instead be left to decide how to tackle housing issues.

“I’m really against far-reaching legislation like that,” said Smetzer, former president of the Florida Apartment Association. “What will the government in the future call a disaster? Will they decide that homelessness is a disaster, and therefore we can’t evict because it would make someone homeless?”

FAA’s Government Affairs Director Amanda White agreed with Smetzer’s opposition to the bill, saying it and other eviction moratoriums fail to address the major underlying issue: someone’s inability to pay rent. 

“This flawed policy leaves renters facing insurmountable debt, while also jeopardizing our already strained housing supply here in Florida,” White said. “The only viable solution going forward is really ensuring that in times like this, that there are rental assistance funds that are made available, to assist both the housing provider and the resident during these times of need.”

The federal government has allocated $46 billion in emergency rental assistance (ERA), but state and local programs have been slow to distribute the money. As of July 26, only about 6% of that money had been distributed to residents. 

Smetzer characterized the slow rollout as a “disaster.”

“They did not appropriate enough money, and the money they’ve appropriated hasn’t been distributed, so it is really hurting both residents and landlords,” Smetzer said.

White pointed out that many landlords operate on thin profit margins, relying on rental payments as revenue to make ends meet and pay mortgages.

“A lot of times here in Florida, our naturally occurring affordable housing is operated by these ‘mom and pop’ landlords,” White said. “In some cases, we’re seeing these landlords are being forced to sell their property.”

“With the home-buying market as hot as it is, it means that that apartment home or single-family home is not likely to remain affordable once it’s sold,” White said.

While Saadian is encouraged by Demings’ legislation, she acknowledged the country would need to enact a much more comprehensive set of reforms to properly address its affordable housing crisis on a larger scale. Eviction bans are only a temporary solution to a far more complex problem, she said.

“It’s not just about losing your home today,” Saadian said. “An eviction record follows renters for many years. It pushes households deeper into poverty. It means their children are earning less income over their lifetime.”

Demings’ bill, H.R. 5043, will likely be considered by a committee first before being considered by the House or the Senate.

Molly Duerig is a Report for America corps member who is covering affordable housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.