Chris Arnold

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.

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Before a new federal eviction ban went into effect recently, Alice and Jeremy Bumpus were on the verge of getting evicted. They live in a house outside Houston with their three kids, and they both lost their jobs after the pandemic hit. Alice worked at an airport fast food restaurant; Jeremy worked at a warehouse.

"We explained to the judge that due to everything that was going on, we just fell behind on just our one month's rent," Alice says.

The Trump administration is ordering a halt on evictions nationwide through December for people who have lost work during the pandemic and don't have other good housing options.

The new eviction ban is being enacted through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal is to stem the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, which the agency says in its order "presents a historic threat to public health."

For months after the pandemic hit, Caroline Wells and her husband were working remotely from their home in San Antonio while trying to ride herd on their two young children. She says the house has basically no yard, and it's on a busy street. So sending the kids outside to play was not happening.

Jane Courcy was living in San Diego doing IT consulting work for colleges and universities when the pandemic hit. Suddenly, her work dried up completely.

With the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment money she was able to get by. But with that gone now, she says the state benefits won't cover her rent and other bills.

"I'm concerned — will I have a place to live," Courcy says. "You know, I come from New England and we're strong people and we take care of ourselves, but we also need government to help us a little bit. When the money runs out, what do I do?"

Updated at 2:56 p.m. ET

FHA mortgages require only a small down payment and are a path to homeownership for many lower-income, minority, and first-time homebuyers. But many are clearly in financial trouble.

The Mortgage Bankers Association says nearly 16% of Federal Housing Administration-insured loans are delinquent — the highest level in records going back to 1979.

Millions of Americans are refinancing their mortgages to save money as superlow interest rates create a rare financial bright spot amid the pandemic.

But homeowners are about to get hit with a big new fee. Starting next month, all home mortgages that are refinanced will have to pay half of 1% of the loan. In other words, $1,500 for a $300,000 mortgage.

Lawmakers in California are rushing to create a new financial protection watchdog agency by the end of the month. They say it's needed because, under the Trump administration, the main federal regulator has been paralyzed.

And they say that during the pandemic that is leaving millions of Americans who are in dire financial straits more vulnerable to predatory lenders, get-out-of-debt-scams and other wrongdoing.

It has been about five months since the U.S. economy ground to a halt, thanks to stay-at-home orders imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. NPR wants to know how the pandemic has affected your job situation, your 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 some schools are telling families to prepare again for distance learning.

Merry Collins lost her job as a home health aide in Dallas after the coronavirus outbreak hit. Before she started getting $600 a week in extra federal unemployment benefits, she got behind on the rent. And in June her landlord took her to court to evict her.

"The first day the courts opened here in Dallas," she says, "that's when they filed for eviction."

Sheera Talpaz, an assistant professor of literature at Oberlin College, has been teaching remotely, stuck indoors. So she figured having a place she could make her own would be good. And now she's found one and is buying her first house.

"I'm really happy because I like the home," she says. "And I think I will just simply enjoy my day-to-day life more living in it."

Mandy Collins lives in Little Mountain, S.C., with her husband and three kids. The 38-year-old never owned a gun before. Her husband doesn't have one either. But after the pandemic hit, she spent $450 on a powerful handgun.

"With all the toilet paper gone and everything, people just started acting crazy," she says. "I guess the fear of the unknown and letting prisoners out of prison, and I just ... decided I wanted to go ahead and just purchase one."

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Americans are buying more guns than ever before. People worried about the pandemic sometimes buy guns. People worried about protests in this country sometimes buy guns. And by one estimate, people have bought 3 million more guns than normal since March. Almost half of all those sales are to first-time gun owners. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Mandy Collins is 38. She lives in Little Mountain, S.C., with her husband and three kids. And she just spent $450 on a powerful handgun.

When you're a man of a certain age and you don't get a haircut for a few months, the thinning hair on top starts getting wispy and blowing around, the sides stick out all crazy. It is not a good look.

And it seemed beyond the help of a YouTube haircut video. So when the stylist who cuts my hair, Vincent Cox, told me that the salon he works at was opening up, I thought — "Well, I don't know. What am I going to risk my health just for vanity?"

Many people with underlying medical conditions are worried about what's going to happen at the end of the month. It's not currently safe for many of them to go back to work. The COVID-19 death rate is 12 times higher for people with underlying conditions.

But an extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits, which has been enabling them to pay their rent and other bills, will stop coming at the end of July.

Many state and local governments have decided it isn't safe yet to hold in-person eviction hearings in court during the pandemic. But apparently it's OK for people to be put out on the street during the outbreak if you do it after a Zoom call.

That's what's happening in some states as eviction moratoriums expire, and courts hold remote hearings for people who can't pay their rent.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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The past few months have weighed heavily on Edgar Fields. He has been meeting with workers at chicken processing plants across Georgia and in nearby states. His union represents them, and many have become sick. Some have died.

"You know, you lay in the bed and you can't sleep because stuff is on your mind? I've got to do this. I've got to do that," he says. "That's what I wake up in every morning thinking, 'What can I do to protect my members to where they have a safe work environment to go to?' "

Americans are skipping payments on mortgages, auto loans and other bills. Normally, that could mean massive foreclosures, evictions, cars repossessions and people's credit getting destroyed.

But much of that has been put on pause. Help from Congress and leniency from lenders have kept impending financial disaster at bay for millions of people. But that may not last for long.

NPR is reporting on how the pandemic has upended every inch of our financial lives, from our ability to make money to how we spend it.

Millions of people have had to seek help from the government, whether it's unemployment benefits or business loans. Some have put off major life decisions because of the economic turmoil.

Now, some states are easing stay-at-home restrictions. And we want to know: Are you ready and able to go back to your normal work and social life?

Please fill out the form below. An NPR reporter may reach out to you for a story.

As businesses reopen, many Americans being called back to work say they don't feel safe — especially those who work in restaurants, hair salons or other high-contact jobs.

"With people eating food, not having masks on, with servers having to touch their plates and their silverware, there's just absolutely no way to keep the servers safe," says Lindsey, a waitress in Iowa.

She has been out of work for two months. But this week, the pub-style restaurant she works at is reopening.

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