The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Staving Off Eviction

If you’re having a hard time paying your rent, it would be great if an angel came along to help out. But it’s probably wiser to look for more grounded assistance when rental cost burdens become pressing.

The housing angel does occasionally pay a visit. Take the case of Ashanti Taylor, a Chicago mother of three evicted from her apartment after the city declared it uninhabitable. To make things worse, Ashanti was given her eviction notice just four days after the birth of her youngest son.

Even though she has managed to find a temporary job with the U.S. Postal Service, Ashanti was forced to move in with her mother, sleeping on the couch while her kids slept on the floor. After being laid off from her previous job, Ashanti had to sell off possessions like her car and jewelry to make ends meet.

Ashanti’s story -- a tale of frequent setbacks while trying to surmount a history of domestic abuse -- came to prominence after she told it on the “Steve Harvey” show. Harvey not only listened sympathetically, he arranged to have her rent paid for a year through Pangea Real Estate, a local apartment management company, and the nonprofit group Make Room.

That’s an example of the angelic solution -- possible, but rare. For more down-to-earth help, it’s better to turn to nonprofit groups or Uncle Sam.

Back in the day, a rule of thumb was to spend no more than a quarter of your monthly income on housing. But that has gone the way of the 5-cent cigar and the penny parking meter. According to a fact sheet from Make Room, nearly half of all renters spend 30 percent of their earnings on rent. And over a quarter of renters spend more than half their incomes on rent. The groups most affected by housing cost burdens include families with children, seniors, disabled renters and veterans.

Based in Washington, D.C., Make Room is sponsored by the nonprofit Enterprise, and partners with the MacArthur and Ford Foundations and the CohnReznick accounting firm. The group says it “is exposing the human suffering and societal costs of the rental housing crisis and advocating for bold solutions that will end housing insecurity.”

Last fall the group participated in a campaign to send 1 million messages to Congress so lawmakers will focus on affordable housing.

Holding a rent party is a tried-and-true method of getting a little extra cash to pay the landlord, and Make Room offers a version of that kind of event: It recruits high-profile performers to do house parties to benefit hard-pressed renters. Recently, Grammy winner Timothy Bloom set up a guitar, keyboard and amp, and played for the friends and neighbors of the Montgomery family of Paterson, New Jersey.

It’s not a secret that renters have been under stress since the mortgage collapse a decade ago. With home sales in a tailspin, demand for rentals increased, and Econ 101 tells us that increased demand leads to higher prices.

The homeownership rate has dropped dramatically in recent years, and rental vacancies have decreased at the same time. The homeownership rate was 63.7 percent at the end of the fourth quarter of last year. At its peak in the first quarter of 2005, that number was 69.1 percent.

The national rental vacancy rate for the fourth quarter of 2016 was 6.9 percent, according to the Census Bureau. That’s down from 10.6 percent in the first quarter of 2010.

In addition to advocacy groups like Make Room, Uncle Sam occasionally comes to the rescue to ease things a bit for renters.

Recently, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., introduced a bill to extend a law that provides relief for renters whose landlords are being foreclosed on. Ellison’s legislation would permanently extend the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act (PTFA), which was enacted in 2009.

PTFA was the only federal protection for renters living in foreclosed properties, according to housing advocates. But because foreclosures have abated, Congress allowed the law to lapse at the end of 2014.

The law provided most renters with the right to receive at least a 90-day notice before being required to move after foreclosure. Now, without that legal protection, tenants -- who often have no idea that their landlords are behind on mortgage payments -- can be evicted with just a few days’ notice in most states.

“PTFA provides critical protection to innocent renter families,” says National Housing Law Project executive director Shamus Roller. “PTFA is an important tool, especially now, given the significant national shortage of rental housing.”

PTFA offers critical protection for responsible renters, agrees Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

”Without federal protections in place, many renters in foreclosed properties are vulnerable to summary eviction --and homelessness,” Foscarinis says. “In nearly half the states, these renters can be evicted with five days’ notice or less, through no fault of their own.”

The bill’s fate in Congress has yet to be decided.

-- Freelance writer Mark Fogarty contributed to this report.