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As Congress Moves To Provide Coronavirus Relief, Will Federal Funds Help Most Renters?

Zach Morris

Jem Dittmar has been a Lyft driver for six years. Sometimes it’s been part-time work, but recently it’s been a full-time gig.

“I love working for Lyft,” they said. “I love people, I love driving, I love the schedule.”

Then coronavirus hit. St. Patrick’s Day weekend was the last time Dittmar drove; they headed out to ferry drunk revelers home, despite feeling a little under the weather.

“As contractors, you really have no choice,” they said. “You have to work no matter what.”

A few days later Dittmar had a fever, a cough, and pressure in their chest, basically a checklist for coronavirus. Their doctor told them to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“It was starting to get scary,” Dittmar said.

Dittmar rents their car from Lyft. Suddenly, under quarantine, they couldn’t drive, which meant they couldn’t cover the weekly fee. On its blog, Lyft promised to “provide funds to drivers” if they tested positive for COVID-19 or were told to self-quarantine by a public health agency. Dittmar wrote to the company to explain they had to stay home and couldn’t return the car. After three stressful days, in which Dittmar thought they would be charged rental fees for a car they couldn’t drive, Lyft told Dittmar to have the car towed back.

The $500 recovery fee from Lyft came as a surprise.

“It hurts,” said Dittmar, who has completed over 4,000 rides as a Lyft driver.

The $500 fee is a big problem for Dittmar, but it isn’t the root problem. The root problem is the global pandemic that’s sending thousands of Americans to hospital emergency rooms and leveling the national and global economy. Without properly addressing the fundamental problem, other economic measures are fruitless, said Sevin Yeltekin, economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Here’s how she explains it: if your washing machine stopped working, you wouldn’t rip out the entire plumbing system; you’d fix the washing machine.

“We’re having a public health crisis. The reason we’re shutting down businesses … is to minimize contagion,” she said. It’s critical to do so because “we don’t have enough tests, we don’t have enough ventilators, we don’t have enough hospital beds, and we don’t have even enough protective gear for our healthcare workers.”

Government policies must direct more resources to fight the pandemic, she said, otherwise the economic damage will continue to pile up.

“At the same time we need to help economically those who are at the margin and who are being impacted the most by this.”

People who can’t work from home typically hold lower-paying jobs — childcare provider, home health aide, grocery clerk — and already have fewer options to borrow money or find new ways to earn income.

“There are a lot of people that … if they get a little bit behind, they don’t have the savings to cover it,” said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. The coalition advocates for decent, affordable housing statewide.

About a third of people in Pennsylvania rent their homes. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court leveled a moratorium on evictions through April 3, but many people remain vulnerable. Chamberlain would like to see more funding for social service agencies and short-term rental assistance.

“Preventing the problem is going to be less expensive than the problem itself,” she said.

A moratorium on evictions isn’t a silver bullet; Chamberlain said landlords need help, too. Many of the people the Housing Alliance works with are small mom-and-pop operations who aren’t making a lot of money, and depend on rental income to get by.

“If people don’t have enough money, they can’t pay for other basic necessities that we need people to pay for in order to have a strong economy,” she said. “So there is a ripple effect.”

Early Wednesday morning the Senate reached a deal on Congress’s third coronavirus relief package. It’s expected to provide billions of dollars in aid for state governments, hospitals, expanded unemployment benefits, and direct payments to American families. But the details of available help for renters remain unclear.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is working with Congress to halt evictions for people in public housing, and mortgage-holders are likely to see broad relief. All those measures may still miss the immediate risks to renters who are suddenly without work.

Jem Dittmar has $200 and rent is due in a few days. During a phone interview Monday, they still didn’t know if Lyft would drop the $500 charge.

“If it puts me below zero, then I won’t be able to take care of myself.”

Late Wednesday evening, Lyft told WESA the company would immediately reverse the recovery charge and reach out to offer support.  

Thanks to friends, Dittmar thinks they’ll be OK this month. After that, they have to look for a new job. And it’s not a good time to be on the market.

Last week, 400,000 Pennsylvanians filed for unemployment, according to a top Pennsylvania labor leader. The state hasn’t confirmed that number, but if true, it would eclipse the high point of unemployment of the Great Recession. The Unemployment Compensation office declined to make someone available for an interview, but said in an email they are “working quickly to bolster [operations] during this unprecedented time.”

Just before midnight on Wednesday, the Senate unanimously approved a nearly $2 trillion relief package, which includes language to expand unemployment compensation benefits, including for gig workers like Dittmar. The federal legislation says people who are self-employed or independent contractors will be treated as if they had been full-time employees, though the amount of unemployment benefit will still be determined by the guidelines of individual states.

The bill also provides payments to states who saw record numbers of unemployment applications made just in the last week. The House of Representatives is expected to vote by Friday.

President Donald Trump said he wants to get the economy back on track by Easter. But health officials warn a premature return to business as usual will harm efforts to get the pandemic under control and lead to many more deaths.

This story was updated at 9:00 a.m. on March 26 to reflect Congressional action on relief legislation. 

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.