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32% of Americans Entered August With Unpaid Housing Bills

By: Igor Popov, Chris Salviati, and Rob Warnock
August 6, 2020
  • For the fourth straight month, roughly one-in-three Americans failed to make a full, on-time housing payment. Late and unpaid housing bills are accumulating, putting financial strain on many families and deepening concerns of near-term evictions and foreclosures.
  • As federal and local eviction bans continue expiring across the nation, 32 percent of renters (and homeowners) entered August with unpaid bills. Over 20 percent owe more than $1,000.
  • Landlords are showing a willingness to negotiate payment plans with their tenants in order to keep their properties occupied. Among renters with unpaid housing bills, 49 percent have either negotiated, or are in the process of negotiating, an arrangement with their landlord.

Introduction

Over the course of July, the daily number of new U.S. COVID-19 cases reached new heights, upending hopes that the worst of the pandemic was behind us. As cases surged, plans to “reopen the economy” were put on pause or reversed in many parts of the country, and the number of new unemployment claims has continued to top one million per week since March. Amid this harsh new economic reality, we reprise our monthly housing payments survey, in which we learn from a national sample of renters and homeowners about their ability to afford housing.1 We find that missed housing payments remain distressingly common, with 33 percent of Americans having failed to make their full rent or mortgage payment in the first week of August.

Numerous Payment Indicators Paint A Distressing Picture

In the first week of August, 11 percent of survey respondents made a partial payment of their monthly rent or mortgage bill, while an additional 22 percent have yet to make any payment whatsoever. This continues a trend that has now lasted four months; the combined rate of missed and partial first-week payments has ranged from 30 to 33 percent going back to May.2 As in previous months, this issue afflicts a greater share of renters (34 percent) than mortgaged homeowners (32 percent). Each month, we have found that many payments missing in the first week of the month are eventually made whole with late payments. Nevertheless, by the first week of August, 10 percent of respondents had still failed to make a full payment for July. As a result, unpaid housing costs are piling up for many Americans, renters and homeowners alike.

Given that we have witnessed consistently elevated rates of non-payment for months, it is unsurprising that 32 percent of Americans entered August with outstanding housing debt from prior months. This is creating a deep sense of housing insecurity for those struggling to keep up financially. Among those with unpaid housing bills, 66 percent of renters and 65 percent of homeowners are worried about facing an eviction or foreclosure within the next six months. Moreover, two-thirds of the renters in this group have not made a complete August payment. With the recent expiration of most federal eviction and foreclosure protections and a lapse in expanded unemployment benefits, this insecurity is sure to deepen over the coming weeks.

One-In-Three Americans Entered August with Unpaid Housing Bills

Not including this month’s payments, 32 percent of survey respondents entered August with unpaid housing bills from a prior month. While the overall rate was similar for renters and mortgaged homeowners, the latter group has accrued more debt. By the end of July, 15 percent of renters had accumulated rent debt but owed their landlords less than $1,000, 11 percent owed between $1,000 and $2,000, and 5 percent owed more than $2,000. Meanwhile, among homeowners, just 8 percent missed payments totaling less than $1,000, while 11 percent owed between $1,000 and $2,000, and 13 percent owed more than $2,000.

These accumulating missed payments affect renters and homeowners very differently. Some owners can defer payments through forbearance plans or even tack payments missed due to financial hardship onto the end of their loan period. Renters often lack these options and the clarity that accompanies them.

As congress continues to debate another round of stimulus, these data serve as an important indicator of the amount of assistance required to get Americans caught up on their housing payments (and potentially save thousands of families from losing their homes). For example, our survey suggests that a stimulus check of $2,000 would be sufficient to wipe out unpaid rent bills for 83 percent of renters who are behind on their payments. Another $1,200 payment—similar to the one issued by Congress in March—would alleviate half of the nation’s outstanding rent debt. That said, a one-time payment does little to address the underlying economic crisis causing this problem, so it is likely that housing debt would again accrue as widespread unemployment continues.

Eviction Concerns Mount, but Many Landlords and Renters Are Reaching New Agreements

In prior months, those struggling with their housing costs could take some solace in the protections offered by a patchwork of federal, state, and local policies that placed moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures. Today many statewide moratoriums have already expired, as has the majority of federal CARES Act protections.3 Against this backdrop, respondents to our survey are expressing significant concern about their short-term housing security. In August, 37 percent of renters say that they are at least somewhat concerned about facing an eviction within the next six months, while 26 percent of homeowners are concerned about foreclosure.

Evictions are not just a threat to renters, but potentially costly for landlords as well. Given the current circumstances, landlords have to decide whether an eviction makes sense financially, even if their tenants are behind on rent. With so many Americans out of work, a vacant unit may be difficult to fill, creating long stretches of lost revenue for the landlord. So for some, providing leniency to tenants who are in a financial bind (on the grounds that rent debt will be repaid eventually) could be mutually beneficial. With that in mind, our data show that many landlords are showing a willingness to negotiate repayment plans for their tenants who are struggling.

Among renters who entered August with unpaid bills, 28 percent said that they had reached an agreement with their landlord for a payment plan or otherwise renegotiated lease terms, while an additional 21 percent are in the process of negotiating such an agreement. 33 percent had not inquired about negotiating with their landlord, while the remaining 18 percent inquired but were denied. Unsurprisingly, renters who are up-to-date on their payments are far less likely to seek a new arrangement. 82 percent have made no such request, while only 10 percent have negotiated (or are currently negotiating) a new payment plan.

Conclusion

As the pandemic rages on, missed housing payments are continuing to pile up. For the fourth straight month, we found that roughly one-in-three Americans failed to make their full rent or mortgage payment in the first week of the month. Many of the protections and benefits put in place at the outset of the pandemic are now expiring, and the prospects for another round of stimulus remain uncertain. As unpaid housing debt builds, concerns around eviction and foreclosure are mounting. Although landlords and lenders are showing a willingness to negotiate, housing security is currently in jeopardy for an unprecedented number of Americans.


  1. Each nationally-representative monthly survey reaches over 4,000 Americans, and is distributed on the third day of the month. The surveys are administered through SurveyMonkey and the samples match the gender and age distributions of the United States as a whole.
  2. Monthly reports are available for July, June, May, and April.
  3. The FHA recently extended foreclosure and eviction moratoriums, but only for federally-backed single-family homes, disproportionately favoring homeowners over renters, the majority of whom live in multi-family buildings.
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