32% of Americans had outstanding housing payments at the beginning of August

Protesters gather at a rally in support of bills and legislation to block evictions in Massachusetts for up to a year.
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As Congress debates what to include in the next coronavirus relief package, almost one-third of households, 32%, owed money for missed rent or mortgage payments from previous months at the beginning of August, according to a survey by Apartment List, an online rental platform. 

The finances of many Americans have deteriorated over the past few months as state reopenings have faltered and the unemployment rate remains sky-high. As a result, millions of Americans are missing bill payments, especially housing, which is most people's largest monthly expense. Of the one-third of households who had unpaid housing bills for previous months at the beginning of August, 20% owed at least $1,000. 

Those statistics will only get worse if Congress does not pass another stimulus bill soon, according to Morning Consult: An estimated 5.4 million additional people will be unable to pay all of their bills by the end of August without a new job or the extra $600 in weekly unemployment insurance that expired last week.

August marked the fourth straight month that around one-third of U.S. households did not make their full housing payment on time, per Apartment List. In the first week of August, 11% of respondents made a partial payment, while 22% had yet to make any payment at all.

One silver lining: Though numbers of missed on-time payments were also high in July, around 90% of households had paid their bill by the end of the month. Still, that means millions of households could have accrued late payment or non-payment fees. 

And with eviction courts reopening across the country, the missed payments have advocates worried about potentially millions of people losing their homes in the middle of a global pandemic. 

"This is creating a deep sense of housing insecurity for those struggling to keep up financially," says Apartment List. "With the recent expiration of most federal eviction and foreclosure protections and a lapse in expanded unemployment benefits, this insecurity is sure to deepen over the coming weeks."

How to negotiate your rent

While tenants and homeowners missed their housing payments at similar rates, renters are especially vulnerable right now because they have fewer relief options, according to Apartment List.

"Some owners can defer payments through forbearance plans or even tack payments missed due to financial hardship onto the end of their loan period," the survey says. "Renters often lack these options and the clarity that accompanies them."

The first thing renters should do if they are struggling to pay their housing bill is to negotiate with their landlord, Igor Popov, chief economist at Apartment List, tells CNBC Make It. In the August survey, almost half of renter respondents reported that they had negotiated or were in the process of negotiating their housing bill with their landlord.

If you are struggling to pay your rent, contact your landlord in writing so that you have a written record of the eventual agreement. Try to work out a repayment plan, with specified repayment dates, Kelley Long, financial planner and member of the American Institute of CPAs' Consumer Financial Education Advocates, previously told CNBC Make It.

It is also best to give your landlord at least a partial payment if you can. But if you have little to no income, you can also ask to skip a month and spread the payment out over a few months once you are back to work, says Long.

"Remember that your landlord needs income too, so approach this with empathy for what you're asking," she says. Make it clear that "you're just paying late rather than asking for free money."

As Congress negotiates the next economic relief package, Apartment List finds that a stimulus payment of $2,000 would be enough "to wipe out unpaid rent bills for 83% of renters who are behind on their payments," while a $1,200 check — which is what Congressional Republicans and Democrats have proposed — would clear half of the outstanding rent in the U.S.

"That said, a one-time payment does little to address the underlying economic crisis causing this problem, so it is likely that housing debt would again accrue as widespread unemployment continues," writes Apartment List.

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