Carrie Duran stands with her three children

Carrie Duran stands with her three children, twins Isabella and Marisole, 13, and Katie, 9, outside their home in Wolfeboro, N.H.  

Carrie Duran didn't have to scrounge too much when her rent came due in April. The 48-year-old single mother covered the bill with the $1,200 federal stimulus check she received that month.

But May soon would prove to be much tougher. Her hours working for a local nonprofit had been cut dramatically. She wasn't receiving unemployment benefits in her home state of New Hampshire. She had three kids to feed, a daughter with Down syndrome to support, a car payment that hounded her so much that creditors called her five times on Mother's Day alone -- an ever-growing list of responsibilities competing for her attention and her ever-dwindling bank account.

"You have to think about what is the most important thing," Duran said, "and a roof over our head is the most important thing."

As the coronavirus pandemic threatens to lapse late into the year, many families in New Hampshire and across the six-state New England region are coming to a similar, scary realization: It's never been easy to afford a home or apartment here, and it's about to become even more difficult.

With unemployment skyrocketing -- and some federal financial aid weeks away from running dry -- millions of local residents newly find themselves at risk of prolonged financial hardship, perhaps even staring down the once-unfathomable prospect of homelessness. Despite the U.S. government's efforts to halt evictions and extend $3 trillion in aid, many say they fear falling behind on their rent or mortgage and lack the means to put off some of those payments until their bank accounts -- and the broader economy -- are in better shape.

The financial burdens have troubled not only local families but economists and lawmakers, who see in the making a potential crisis more than a decade after a wave of foreclosures swept millions of Americans out of their homes. In New England alone, roughly 380,000 area homeowners and renters are at risk of falling behind about $540 million in payments each month, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which found the region is one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Boston Fed cautioned its numbers hinge on the availability of state and federal financial support, including the enhanced unemployment benefits and one-time stimulus checks Congress authorized in March. Economists said the data offer a cautionary tale -- for New England and the rest of the country -- about the financial devastation on the horizon if the pandemic outpaces the U.S. government's response.

President Donald Trump told Republican senators on Tuesday he wanted to allow the enhanced unemployment benefits to expire in July.

"If we don't see a dramatic resumption of employment, and we don't see an extension of those unemployment insurance benefits, then the scenario quickly looks much closer to our worst-case scenario," said Jeffrey P. Thompson, a vice president and economist at the Boston Fed.

Duran, for her part, ultimately worked out an arrangement with the property managers overseeing Harriman Hill, a low-income housing community in Wolfeboro she's long called home. She'd cover a fraction of the rent due on her three-bedroom place this month, then deal with the remainder later. But Duran said she fears she may have no choice but to seek help again perhaps in June and July and August, adding to a growing financial burden that she knows someday is going to come due.

"I think I'm not the only one who's going to be in this boat," Duran said. "We're going to be playing catch up for a long time."

In New England, the economic carnage arrived almost as quickly as the coronavirus outbreak that caused it. The unemployment rate among the six states in the region -- Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont -- surged immediately, later outpacing the national average, the Boston Fed found in an earlier May report.

Roughly one-third of Rhode Island's labor force sought unemployment benefits by mid-April, leaving the small state with the country's highest rate of joblessness at the time, federal labor data show. In Vermont, the job cuts ravaged the local services industry, largely given the dramatic decline in tourism and hospitality. These workers made up nearly 80 percent of the earliest claims for unemployment support in the state, according to U.S. indicators.

Nationwide, 36.5 million have sought unemployment checks since the pandemic began. Yet three of the 10 states with the highest unemployment rates in the United States in the final week of April belonged to New England, the Labor Department found Thursday. Experts say the job cuts have hit low-wage workers without college degrees the hardest, threatening their livelihoods most.

"It's a depression for them. It's a recession everyone else," said Brian Kench, dean of the College of Business at the University of New Haven.

For the past year, Marlene Rojas had been working in a local Boston hospital, helping to shuttle patients in wheelchairs around the facility -- until she found herself among the ill, officially diagnosed in April with covid-19.

Rojas, 40, had already exhausted her sick leave, the result of having to care for her two children as a single mother. So she holed up for weeks without pay in her two-bedroom home in Boston's immigrant-heavy Chelsea community, she said, suffering through the physical anguish of a high fever, sore throat and the other hallmarks of the disease.

Slowly but surely, Rojas got better, but her finances didn't, after the contractor that employed her laid her off. Now, Rojas, who came to the United States from Mexico roughly two decades ago for work, said she is struggling to obtain unemployment -- and unsure what comes next.

"I'm worried about how I'm going to pay my rent, how I'm going to pay for food, for the kids, for me and my bills," she said. A local organization, called Neighborhood Developers, is helping her afford rent for the next few months on her two-bedroom home. But, she still stressed: "I worry."

Many of these vulnerable families have benefited greatly from state and federal support. Evictions and foreclosures largely are paused, and homeowners can postpone payments on certain mortgages, such as those backed by Fannie Mae. Unemployed workers across the country have additional dollars of federal stimulus at their disposal.

The actions so far have helped stave off an historic foreclosure crisis, experts say. In New Hampshire, for example, roughly 70 percent of mortgages are "federally connected some way," said Dean Christon, the executive director of the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. He said the extent to which federal lawmakers' efforts benefit homeowners here and across the country ultimately will depend on how repayment options are implemented and enforced.

But renters increasingly represent a growing concern. Some families may be able to postpone sending monthly checks -- but only for so long. Many renters simply may not earn enough money to catch up quickly on missed payments, especially if they are forced to pay them later in a lump sum at risk of eviction. That puts a strain on the landlords who own those properties in the first place, adding to the potential for a housing crisis unless the government authorizes additional aid.

"If you're a household trying to make the math work, it was already a tight budget before," said Stefanie Coxe, the executive director of the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts. "Now, it's even tighter."

In her state, for example, about 11 percent of working homeowners had struggled to pay both their rent and their basic costs of living even before the coronavirus took root, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Among renters, nearly 21 percent found themselves under financial duress, the group previously found. If workers do not get their jobs back, or the federal government does not extend additional support, it could leave an estimated 96,500 rental households in need of about $90 million in monthly assistance just in Massachusetts alone, according to MAPC.

"All of this temporary relief comes to a close and phases out unless something is done," said Tim Reardon, the research director of the group, adding: "There is a risk even during the next three months that we're going to see a worsening of the inequities we see in the housing market.

For some in the region, that moment has already arrived.

Outside Providence, Shanira Villafane had been saving for months, eagerly anticipating the day that she, her husband and their 9-year-old daughter could move out of a local shelter and into their own apartment. She recently had banked her federal stimulus check to pay for the costs of the move, and Villafane enrolled in a Rhode Island program that provides housing assistance to low-income families.

But the coronavirus soon upended her plans. Villafane, 26, said it quickly became hard to find reasonable apartments. Not only that, she worried about her ability to afford them over the long term, especially after the grocery store where she works slashed her hours. Taking on a second job wasn't much of an option, either, as Villafane labored to help her daughter through the slog of home school -- all the while toiling to complete her own coursework for a GED.

That meant Villafane is stuck in limbo, she said, at least for the time being.

"God forbid my job shuts down," she said. "I want to stay where I'm at . . . even if it's driving me crazy here."

The plight facing renters and homeowners recently has caught the attention of Washington, where Democratic lawmakers have put forward new legislation authorizing $100 billion in new federal funds to help renters. "This pandemic has shown us how vulnerable working families are to a single financial setback, and renters need relief now," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), its chief author, in a statement.

But the bill is caught up in a fierce back and forth between lawmakers about how best to respond to the coronavirus. Many in the party, including top Trump administration officials, recently have signaled they would prefer to allow prior federal relief packages to run their course before authorizing perhaps trillions of dollars in new funding, threatening for now to scuttle any new housing relief.

Nationwide, states such as Nevada and cities including Philadelphia have sought to implement their own programs to help homeowners maintain their rent. Many, including Massachusetts and others in the New England area, long have allotted millions of dollars toward trying to keep people in their homes. But local experts and economists say that their local governments alone cannot bear the full costs of helping people stay afloat, particularly at a moment when cities and states are facing a cash crunch of their own. The Boston Fed, for one, warned in a new report this week that the "real impact to households has come from federally provided benefits."

"Right now, we have all of these band aids in place, and we're really grateful for them, but they're just bandaids," said Elissa Margolin, the director for Housing Action NH, which advocates for low-income housing in the state.

The story in New Hampshire is one mirrored across the region, added Margolin, with tens of thousands of families who were already at risk of falling behind on rents they may never be able to pay. "Add to that significant job losses in the sector that is made up of mostly renters -- so, hospitality, lodging, restaurants, retail -- and you have a perfect storm for an evictions crisis."

Thursday, June 04, 2020