Journal Times, Racine, Dec. 10

Congress should help both landlords and renters

One American crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, may have reached the end of the beginning: Vaccines are on the verge of being shipped and distribution to those at greatest risk is about to begin.

Another American crisis, a byproduct of the pandemic, is looming on the horizon.

Up to 40 million people, the Aspen Institute estimates, face the possibility of eviction when the eviction moratorium imposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, invoking its authority under the Public Health Service Act, expires Dec. 31.

There’s never a good time for masses of people to be turned out of their homes, but with the pandemic still raging and the CDC advising against large gatherings in confined spaces, this might be the worst time to have a substantial number of people made even temporarily homeless.

Tenants already owe nearly $25 billion in back rent, Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s analytics, told the Washington Post in August. The collective back rent owed could reach $69.8 billion by the end of the year, he said.

Renter households below the poverty line have been the hardest hit by a surge in housing burden in recent years in the United States, Matthew Desmond, an assistant professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard University, wrote for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Institute on Research and Poverty publication Fast Focus in 2015. “Today, the majority of poor renting families spend at least half of their income on housing costs,” Desmond wrote. “And almost a quarter dedicate over 70 % of their income to pay rent and keep the lights on.”

Evictions disproportionately affect people of color, Desmond’s study found: Women living in black neighborhoods in Milwaukee represent 9.6 % of the population, but 30 % of evictions. Among renters, more than 1 in 5 black women report having been evicted sometime in their adult life. The same is true for roughly 1 in 12 Hispanic women, and 1 in 15 white women.

But while renters could be severely affected by the lifting of the eviction moratorium, its imposition and continuance is affecting another type of individual: The “mom and pop” landlord. Not a property-rental company with employees such as building managers, but individuals or couples who have purchased buildings and then rented them out.

Like most of us who bought houses, many of these landlords took out mortgages to purchase the property. They have mortgage payments, too, and the bank that issued the mortgage expects that monthly payment to be made.

Noel Wilson is one such landlord. The former teacher began renting out her San Bernardino, Calif., home two years ago to help pay for a career change, the Washington Post reported. The tenant paid faithfully at first, but Wilson said that changed and she began trying to evict him in February. A month later, when COVID began to spread, Congress put a federal moratorium in place. The tenant, who was initially cooperative and now owes $14,350 in back rent, stopped returning her calls, Wilson said. “All of my savings are pretty much gone because of this,” she said. “I am just exhausted. I feel helpless.”

Renters who fell behind before COVID-19 shut down the economy shouldn’t be protected by the same eviction bans meant to help people affected by the pandemic, Wilson said, and she’s right. While some landlords are willing or able to work with renters, an apartment or house is rented with the expectation and understanding that X dollars will be paid in rent each month.

One way to look at the eviction moratorium is that it has prevented those put out of work by COVID from being evicted. Another way to look at it is that the moratorium punishes landlords who have operated in good faith with their tenants.

Another moratorium is not the answer. We don’t like it when governmental bodies kick the can down the road; we expect those we elect to take action, to address a crisis, not say “let that be the next legislature’s problem.”

The way to avoid this looming crisis is direct federal assistance for both renters and landlords, to help renters pay the rent and landlords make their mortgage payments. Any COVID relief package drafted by Congress this month must help renters and landlords during the period between New Year’s Day and widespread distribution of vaccines. We don’t know when that period ends, but we know the assistance will be necessary for both sides.

The vaccines are coming. But they won’t be here by the first of the month.

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Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Dec. 5

Wisconsin school's should heed Dr. Fauci's advice

The nation’s top infectious disease expert just urged schools to reopen.

We hope school officials in Madison and across Wisconsin were listening — those who have kept most of their students at home for online learning during the pandemic.

School officials should be ready to open for the second semester in late January, at least for elementary school students. Districts also should share their plans with the public. School officials always can push back their opening dates based on what’s happening in their communities. Not every school and situation is the same.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC’s “This Week” that in-person classes should be “the default position.”

The spread of COVID-19 “among children and from children is not really very big at all, not like one would have suspected,” Fauci said. “So let’s try to get the kids back.”

Amen.

The potentially deadly virus is more than a public health threat. It’s a detriment to learning, especially for children whose parents don’t have flexibility with their jobs or the latest technology in their homes to help students with their studies.

Online classes are hurting math scores and widening achievement gaps along racial and economic lines, a nonprofit research group reported last week. The NWEA’s analysis of data from more than 4 million third- through eighth-graders across the country showed student progress is slipping. The researchers also worried their study underestimates the impact on minority and poor students, who have been disproportionately stuck at home for school.

That concern definitely applies to Madison, where more than half of students are of color and nearly half are economically disadvantaged. The district absolutely should figure out how to follow Fauci’s advice.

While gathering students in classrooms presents some risk for infection, leaving them at home contributes to social isolation, abuse, depression and hunger, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s especially true for younger students. Schools can help keep students safe from the virus by isolating them in small groups, separating desks with plexiglass and, for middle and high school students, requiring masks. Parents should still be given an online option.

New York City’s progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio reversed course last week by embracing in-person classes — despite a higher percentage of New York City residents testing positive for COVID. The nation’s largest school district plans to reopen school buildings to many of its youngest students Monday.

“We feel confident that we can keep schools safe,” de Blasio told The Associated Press.

Republicans who control the Wisconsin Assembly want to require schools here to open by late January. We share the Legislature’s urgency. But those decisions should be left to local officials.

State leaders can help ease health concerns among teachers and other school staff by prioritizing them for vaccines, ahead of the general public. Vaccines should start arriving for health professionals and the elderly later this month and expand from there.

Europe has learned that schools are not major sources of transmission of COVID-19, and children there have benefited from in-person instruction. America needs to learn that lesson, too.

That doesn’t mean the virus should be taken lightly. A Madison student at East High School, which has relied on remote learning, died last month after an apparent “COVID-related illness,” according to the district. Cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin remain high, though they have been falling for the last two weeks.

Schools should prioritize what’s best for children — not what’s best for teachers unions or business interests. And according to Fauci and other health experts, that means opening schools for in-person classes sooner than later.

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