SARAH SKIDMORE SELL, AP Personal Finance Writer
Americans who struggled through 2020 could face more hardship in the year ahead as pandemic related payments and protections come to an end.
Expanded unemployment benefits will cease by the end of the year, reducing much-needed income for as many as 12 million Americans. Federal eviction protection will expire as well. And student loan payments, which had been paused since March, are scheduled to resume in January.
Meanwhile, the pandemic shows no signs of abating and broad distribution of any vaccine is likely months away. Both sides in Congress have shown interest a new relief package, they’ve been unable to reach an agreement and time is running short.
Here’s what you should know about the changes ahead and how to cope:
The U.S. Department of Education suspended payments for federal student loans, stopped collections on defaulted loans and set interest rates at 0% in March. This relief period concludes at the end of the year, unless extended by the government.
Loan servicers are expected to start contacting borrowers in early December about resuming payments, said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert with the website Savingforcollege.com.
If you don’t hear anything, contact your servicer to find out about the status of your loans.
If a borrower is unemployed or otherwise unable to resume payments, they can seek an economic hardship deferment, unemployment deferment or a forbearance — all of which will result in a further pause in payments. There are also income-driven repayment plans, which base the size of a monthly payment on a percentage of your discretionary income. For those whose income is less than 150% of the poverty line, the monthly loan payment will be zero.
Some private student loan lenders are extending their pandemic related forbearance on a case-by-case basis, Kantrowitz said. In the case of federal or private student loans, he suggests borrowers ask their lender about their options.
A moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control in September that protects certain renters from eviction expires at the end of the year.
It only applies to renters who earn less than $99,000, or $198,00 for couples, who are unable to pay rent because of COVID-19 hardships and can affirm they would become homeless if they are evicted.
A patchwork of federal, state and local eviction moratoriums has not kept everyone from being kicked out of their home, however. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University has been tracking evictions in 27 cities and says more than 151,000 evictions have taken place during the pandemic.
Experts are expecting a wave of evictions ahead as moratoriums expire and back rent becomes due.
Anyone who is struggling to pay rent, unable to pay or is behind in payments should contact their landlord or property management company to discuss their options. They may be willing to negotiate.
Renters should also find out what local protections they have, if any. Th e Eviction Lab maintains a list of local and regional actions to protect eviction of renters.
If you are on the brink of eviction or already facing action, consider legal help.
The Stanford Legal Design Lab along with Pew Charitable Trusts, has a user-friendly website to inform renters about their rights and options. Just Shelter, a tenant advocacy group, offers information on local and national help for renters in distress. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Low Income Housing Coalition both have information online to assist renters.
Renters can also contact the Department of Housing and Urban Development to see if they qualify for housing assistance or to get help with eviction issues.
Unemployment hit record highs due to the pandemic. And millions of Americans are at risk of running out of benefits when two key federal pandemic relief programs expire.
People who have exhausted their state’s unemployment benefits have been able to seek an additional 13 weeks of payments through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. However, that program expires at the end of the December.
Someone who uses up both of these payments may be able to apply for extended benefits, which states make available during times of high unemployment. All states enabled extended benefits during the pandemic, but some have since ceased them because of an improvement in employment.
Anyone who has exhausted their traditional state benefits should ask their state employment agency if extended benefits are available. A separate application may be required, said Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.
Additionally, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program — known as the PUA — allows self-employed, part-time workers and others who aren’t typically eligible for unemployment to receive payments. It has enabled millions to get aid but those who have exhausted their PUA payments have no alternative.
The Century Foundation estimates that 12 million people will be on PEUC or PUA when it expires on Dec. 26. The nonpartisan think tank estimates that 2.9 million of those running out of PEUC will be able to collect extended benefits in 2021.
Beyond that, the foundation estimates 4.4 million workers will have already exhausted benefits under the federal virus relief package before this cutoff, sending into the new year with little or no aid.
The economy has improved but the unemployment rate is still 6.9%, below its peak but a far cry from the pre-pandemic rate of 3.5%. And the full impact of a third wave of COVID-19 cases has yet to be seen.
“Sadly, after this cliff, there just isn’t much for people.” said Evermore. “Food pantries, the other frayed components of the safety net, high interest loans like credit cards or pawn shops – people are going to have nowhere to turn in the dead of winter during a pandemic.”
For those in need, United Way’s 211 service can connect people with charitable assistance for housing, food and other essentials. The National Foundation for Consumer Credit Counseling also has free financial counselors available to help those struggling financially.