Chris Arnold

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With their savings running out, many Americans are being forced to use credit cards to pay for bills they can't afford — even their rent. Housing experts and economists say this is a blinking-red warning light that without more relief from Congress, the economy is headed for even more serious trouble.

There are fewer homes for sale in the U.S. today than ever recorded in data going back nearly 40 years. That's a big part of what's driving up home prices much faster than incomes, and making homeownership less affordable for more and more Americans.

"We are simply facing a housing shortage, a major housing shortage," says Lawrence Yun, the chief economist at the National Association of Realtors which tracks home sales. "We need to build more homes. Supply is critical in the current environment."

Updated at 8:48 a.m. ET

The day after Christmas, millions of Americans will lose their jobless benefits, according to a new study. And that could spell financial ruin for many people, like 44-year-old Todd Anderson in the small town of Mackinaw City, Mich.

Anderson's a single dad with four kids — two of them 5-year-old twins. He lost his income after the pandemic hit in the spring. He did landscape design at resorts that host big weddings, and he says all that's been shut down.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created after the last financial crisis to be the tough cop on the beat, making sure people don't get taken advantage of by lenders, debt collectors or other companies. It's returned $12 billion to people harmed by financial firms.

"This agency was designed to be a watchdog," says Deepak Gupta, a former top enforcement lawyer at the bureau. "That mission is more important than ever."

With millions of Americans in desperate financial straits due to the pandemic, he says, more people are vulnerable to predatory practices.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The day after Christmas, 12 million Americans will lose their jobless benefits, and that could spell financial ruin for many of them. That's according to a new study just out this morning. It looks at what will happen if Congress can't reach a compromise to extend those benefits and pass another relief bill. NPR's Chris Arnold is reporting on this and joins us this morning. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Why will so many be in trouble right at the end of the year?

At the start of the year, John Forr saw interest rates falling and figured it was a good time to refinance the mortgage on his house in Punta Gorda, Fla. Forr is a retired Marine Corps colonel. He served for 27 years.

He wanted to get a VA loan — backed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — because he knew he was supposed to be able to get a better deal on the interest rate and other terms. Those are perks offered to vets and service members for their service.

It has been more than eight months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. NPR wants to know how it has affected your employment situation, your ability to pay your rent or mortgage, your other household finances, your business, if you have one, and your ability to juggle work and child care.

Millions of people have had to seek unemployment benefits, business loans and other help to deal with the economic turmoil. Some employers have permanently closed their doors. And many schools are doing distance learning.

As we head into winter, we want to know: How are you coping?

Nellie Riether, a single mom from Ringwood, N.J., faces a stark choice: raid her retirement savings or uproot her kids from home and move in with her sister.

"To be honest, it's mortifying and embarrassing at 46 years old to say I'm going to have to move in with my sister," she says. "Emotionally, it's a bit of a failure."

Riether has been out of work since April, when she was furloughed from her job in office building design. She can't pay the rent much longer, and she's worried about her kids, who are 13 and 15.

The pandemic is driving a major boom in the housing market that's breaking all kinds of records and exposing a very uneven economic recovery between the haves and the have-nots. The most dramatic increases are happening at the top end of the market — sales of homes costing $1 million and up have more than doubled since last year.

Millions of people are working from home while juggling their kids' remote schooling. And many who can afford to are buying bigger houses.

Fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits have been a problem for a long time, and states have set up systems to try to prevent such fraud. But lost in that effort is arguably a bigger problem: Some of those systems have hurt millions of innocent people, keeping the benefits they deserve in limbo.

They're people like Sevy Guasch, who lost his job as a food and beverage manager at a Marriott hotel near San Jose, Calif. In March, he applied for unemployment benefits. He went online, entered his information, and waited. And waited.

A manager at McDonald's likely paid more federal income tax than President Trump did the year he took office.

The president's tax returns show he paid just $750 in federal income taxes each year in 2016 and 2017 and paid nothing at all for many years before that, according to reporting from The New York Times.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Jesus Gonzalez was about a year into starting a Cuban food catering and "pop-up" business in Lexington, Ky. It's like "a food truck, but without a truck," he says.

His steadiest gig was setting up tables with a spread of Cuban food at local breweries so people could eat while quaffing pints. But then all that shut down. And he says things aren't back to normal enough yet for the breweries to bring him back.

Jean lost her job as a school bus driver in Chicago during the pandemic. She was managing OK with unemployment money. But then, about two weeks ago, she got a desperate call from her adult son.

"His job had laid him off, and he wasn't able to pay rent," she says. There was an eviction moratorium in Chicago, but Jean says the landlord wanted her son out anyway.

She says the landlord got someone to threaten her son, and to shoot his dog — a German shepherd mix he'd had for years.

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