All eyes on Congress as they negotiate a fourth phase of COVID-19 relief

With the country still in urgent need of more economic relief from the pandemic, Congress continues to be deadlocked on producing a legislative package. Senate Republicans unveiled the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act last weektheir latest legislative response to COVID-19 following the HEROES Act passed by the House more than two months ago.

When it comes to a final stimulus package, Smart Growth America and specifically our LOCUS coalition of responsible real estate developers are looking for a bill that will support those most vulnerable to economic distress, both in the short and long term. Specifically, we are looking for provisions that:

  • Help keep people in their homes;
  • Create more affordable housing in order to ease the cost burden on low-income households in the event of another economic recession; 
  • Keep public transit operating to get people to their jobs and essential services.

The HEALS Act proposes a total of $3.313 billion towards rental assistance programs that support those already receiving housing assistance, and to support maintaining public housing programs. Although this is a step in the right direction, there are millions of Americans who are or will soon be facing eviction due to the loss of a job because of the pandemic, causing them to miss rent payments. The final bill should include funding for preventing these evictions, in addition to the bill’s support for Americans who are already receiving rental assistance. It’s not only renters who are at risk of homelessness from job losses—the final bill should also include support for homeowners, which is proposed in the House’s HEROES Act.

Regarding long-term assistance, funding for affordable housing production would not only help meet a persistent need, it would also help ease the financial distress of low-income households in the event of another economic downturn by decreasing the housing cost burden that too many Americans already face. The economy is likely to struggle far beyond this year, and we need to add more affordable housing—and do it in places with low transportation costs—to help support the millions of Americans who are or will be earning less. Funding for affordable housing production should strongly consider location to ensure that low-income households have easy access to essential services and amenities, not only in the case of a public health pandemic, but for promoting the overall sustainability and well-being of communities. 

The HEALS Act includes $0 in emergency transit funding to keep cash-strapped transit agencies solvent and operating during the pandemic and during any future recovery as Americans head back to work. This is problematic for many reasons, including the unfair disadvantage that the reduction and/or loss of public transit has on those who rely on it to get to their jobs. This includes many essential workers who are not able to work from home and who have no other way to safely reach their jobs each day. Our Transportation for America program is calling on Congress to include $32 billion for transit relief in the final bill, a call that has been echoed by riders, transit agency executives, and numerous members of Congress.

While Congress appears to be deadlocked for now, they could vote on a final economic stimulus package next week, but there is a wide gulf between the Senate GOP’s HEALS Act and the House’s HEROES Act. Whatever finally passes is likely to be Congress’ final COVID-19 relief package before November’s presidential election. 

The table below provides a comparison of the major items we’re tracking in the the Senate GOP’s HEALS Act and the House’s HEROES Act:

Issue AreaHEALS Act (Senate GOP)HEROES Act (Passed House May 15, 2020)
• $3.2 billion for rental assistance and public housing under HUD, plus $113.4 million for the Rural Development Rental Assistance Program for wage-earning individuals already receiving assistance who are unable to pay rent due to loss of wages.

• No funding included for homeowners assistance.
• $119 billion towards housing assistance programs under HUD (split between 10 different programs).

• $75 billion towards homeowners assistance for states, territories and tribes.
No additional emergency funding for transit.• Allocates $15 billion for ongoing work of states, tribes and territories.

• $15.75 billion in emergency operations support for transit.
$1,200 recovery rebate to individuals in a structure that parallels the CARES Act (passed in March).Provides additional economic stimulus payments in the form of a refundable tax credit of $1,200 for single filers, $2,400 for joint filers, plus $1,200 for each dependent (up to three dependents per household), with a phase-out for higher incomes.
Community Development
Paycheck Protection Program Extends PPP authorization to Dec. 31, 2020.Extends PPP authorization to Dec. 31, 2020.
State and Local Governments No additional funding for state and local governments, instead allows them to use CARES Act funds to make up lost revenues.Includes $500 billion for state governments and
$375 billion for local governments to mitigate the fiscal impacts of COVID-19.
Community Development Financial InstitutionsNo funding included for CDFIs.Sets aside $10 billion, from existing funds for community financial institutions, such as CDFIs and Minority Development Institutions (MDIs), plus $1 billion for CDFIs to support economic recovery of distressed communities, including technical assistance.
UnemploymentProposes reducing the unemployment supplement to $200 per week starting in Aug. 2020. The program would be replaced in Oct. 2020 with a payment that would compensate for 70% of lost wages when combined with the state unemployment insurance payment.Proposed extending the $600 per week unemployment supplement to Jan. 31, 2021.