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Oct. 24, 2020, 4:40 a.m. EDT

Here’s how much Americans will owe in unpaid rent by December because of pandemic-related unemployment, according to a Fed study

If every unemployed worker had received the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits, only 125,000 households would be behind on their rent as of December, the study found

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By Jacob Passy

hoto by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images
Millions of Americans who are still unemployed due to the pandemic owe billions of dollars in rent payments to their landlords.

A new study suggests that Americans will owe billions of dollars in unpaid rent by December — but that could mean that the nation’s worst fears about the eviction crisis may not come to fruition.

Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia used payroll, joblessness and unemployment insurance data to create a more precise estimate of how many households nationwide are behind on their rent. The number they produced is far lower than the figures presented by other studies.

The researchers estimated that by December around 1.34 million renter households will be behind on their rent as a result of pandemic-related job losses, which equates to roughly 4.2% of all renter households. Altogether, these households will owe roughly $7.2 billion in rent by December, averaging to around $5,400.

These households include 2.8 million adults and 1.1 million children. The study also found they were more likely to be include people of color or have a woman as the head of the household.

Previous studies have estimated that as many as 40 million Americans were facing the threat of eviction because they had not managed to make full, on-time rent payments because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The difference in these estimates comes down to how researchers went about assessing who was behind on their rent. Some early studies made assumptions about which workers were most likely to be impacted by the pandemic based on the field they were employed in. Other studies based their estimates on survey data regarding people’s confidence in their ability to pay rent, essentially assuming that many people who were worried about missing their rent payment would indeed not make it.

Read more: ‘It’s daunting to think about what the consequences will be.’ With no stimulus deal, much of America’s temporary financial safety net will expire Dec. 31

While the Philadelphia Fed’s estimates suggest that America may escape these worst-case scenarios, the report underscored the importance of the stimulus funding that has gone directly to Americans.

“Policies designed to replace lost income for unemployed workers…have been very effective at preventing rental debt for those households that receive them,” the researchers wrote. Those policies included the extra $600 per week in unemployment insurance payments from the CARES Act, plus the Economic Impact Payments (stimulus checks) households received beginning in April.

Had these resources been distributed more effectively, far fewer renter households would be indebted to their landlords now, researchers found. If every unemployed worker had received unemployment payments with the $600 CARES Act bonus, only 125,000 households would be behind on their rent as of December, the study found.

The researchers did note some caveats to their findings — they did not observe households’ actual savings or non-housing-related costs, but estimated these from other sources, and they did not factor in whether households were struggling with their rent prior to losing their jobs.

Nevertheless, the study shows that millions of people across the country could be facing eviction when the CDC’s national moratorium expires at the end of the year. And it highlights the need for an additional stimulus package, which is still being negotiated by congressional Democrats and the Trump administration. Previously, housing-industry officials have called for lawmakers to set aside at least $100 billion for emergency rental assistance to aid renters and landlords hard-hit by the pandemic.

Jacob Passy is a personal-finance reporter for MarketWatch and is based in New York.

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