The coronavirus pandemic has caused a lot of pain. But it could have been worse.

The enhanced unemployment benefits passed by Congress and state and federal orders banning evictions together kept low-income Americans from being kicked out of their homes on a massive scale.

However, much of the help is now coming to an end, and the rent is due. If nothing is done, millions of Americans will have their lives thrown asunder at the worst possible time.

According to the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project, 20% of the 110 million Americans living in rental units are now at risk of eviction.

Layoffs and otherwise lost income would have caused widespread evictions over the last few months if it were not for the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits, as well as state and federal eviction bans.

In Maine, as in other states, Gov. Janet Mills in April issued a moratorium on evictions set to lapse 30 days after the pandemic state of emergency expires. In addition, court hearings on evictions have been canceled.

But unless Mills extends the emergency order, it ends Friday, starting the clock on the eviction moratorium. A moratorium on evictions from units with federally backed mortgages, though not well enforced thus far, is set to expire soon as well. Maine courts plan to reopen as soon as Aug. 3, and officials are expecting a flood of evictions — that’s already being reported in states where moratoriums have lapsed.

The federal unemployment benefit, too, runs out soon — on July 31, unless Congress acts. Democrats have proposed an extension, but Republicans have been slow to respond.

There is some aid available. MaineHousing offers $500 in one-time rent assistance to tenants that qualify. The city of Portland offers $750 a month for up to three months, plus $250 for utility bills.

But neither is enough to cover rent for a month or to help all the renters who need it — most of whom were already struggling with unaffordable housing.

The lack of sufficient aid leaves landlords in a bind, too — they have mortgages to meet. Most are small-business owners trying to get by at a tough time. We can’t have them putting people on the streets, but they shouldn’t be asked to bear the burden themselves either.

To truly meet the moment, robust nationwide action is necessary. Congress should extend the enhanced unemployment benefits through the pandemic. Another round of stimulus checks would do good, too, as would more aid to local and state governments to let them stave off mass public-sector layoffs and direct funding where it’s needed most.

Those elements of the CARES Act helped keep poverty down and spending up even during the lockdown. We need more of that as states try to find footing amid all the uncertainties caused by the virus and the far-from-over pandemic it has caused.

Congress should also pass some form of the initiatives outlined by the National Low Income Housing Coalition: a national moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, emergency rental assistance, more money for public housing agencies and housing providers.

All of it is in the HEROES Act introduced May 12 by House Democrats. The Republican-controlled Senate have been cold to most of it, particularly extending enhanced unemployment. But the White House has signaled support for another large stimulus.

Any legislation should protect and support renters and landlords. If it doesn’t, in a few months we’ll be saying how bad things look for them — and how it could have been much better.


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