As the United States enters its second month of widespread closure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local governments across the country continue to rely on stay-at-home orders to stem the spread of the virus. However, for the millions of Americans who lack access to safe, stable, and affordable housing, staying at home is not that simple. Although housing costs make up the single largest monthly expense for most Americans, little pandemic relief aid has been directed to explicitly address these costs. Mounting job loss and economic distress highlight the need for more aid including housing relief to ensure Americans can safely and equitably recover from this crisis.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the US was already experiencing a housing crisis. On any given day over 550,000 people experience homelessness, while an estimated 7 million live temporarily with relatives or friends. Shrinking supplies of affordable housing and slow wage growth have left many families one missed paycheck or unexpected expense away from eviction. For those currently experiencing homelessness, social distancing guidelines are difficult or impossible to follow in crowded shelters or outdoor living conditions. Simple preventative measures like washing hands and storing extra food have become more challenging, and frequent movement makes tracing exposure and carrying out adequate testing difficult. Unsurprisingly, the homeless population faces significantly higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death than the general population.
Millions more Americans live in unsafe and unhealthy housing conditions that make home quarantine problematic. At least 30 million American families live in units with serious safety hazards, such as gas leaks, structural damage, mold, pests, and lead paint, which have been linked to serious health concerns like asthma, developmental issues, and injuries, especially among children. The low-income neighborhoods where this type of housing is concentrated also experience more exposure to the virus in general. Residents are more likely to be designated essential workers in industries such as healthcare and food service, work in public-facing roles, and rely on public transportation. For those continuing to work outside the home, safely isolating from family members is particularly challenging in hazardous living conditions.
Access to quality housing is not only impacting people’s susceptibility to COVID-19, but COVID-19 is also, in turn, shaping people’s access to quality housing – with potentially deadly repercussions.
The economic fallout of the coronavirus is disproportionately impacting low-income Americans and people of color, who are generally not able to telecommute and are seeing higher rates of layoffs, paycheck reductions, and employment uncertainty. With low-income earners also significantly more likely to be severely rent-burdened, the current crisis has left many increasingly vulnerable to housing insecurity.
The federal government has responded to concerns about widespread inability to afford housing costs by suspending federal mortgage payments and providing many Americans with a one-time stimulus check, which has had varying impact across the country due to massive differences in the cost of living. However, these measures have provided little relief to the many renters and private mortgage holders who are entering their second month of lapsed payment or struggling to cover those costs.
With limited federal action, cities, states, and territories have attempted to meet the growing need for housing protections by placing temporary moratoria on evictions. For example, Puerto Rico has suspended all civil cases (including eviction cases) and stayed all eviction proceedings in foreclosure cases, as well as suspended all utility disconnections until May 30th. However, many other regions have adopted policies which simply delay eviction proceedings and require repayment of missed rent once they expire, without providing any form of additional financial relief. Eviction enforcement, suspension of civil hearings, and moratoria expiration dates have been sporadic and inconsistent, with different policies enforced across different counties, making it difficult for tenants to understand their rights.
With a record 36.5 million jobs lost since March and few financial protections for renters and many homeowners in place, the US is likely facing an increase in evictions, foreclosures, homelessness, and home crowding after temporary moratoria expire. This is particularly alarming considering access to safe and stable housing has been critical to containing the spread of the virus and that experts predict an “inevitable” second wave of COVID-19 infections.
In addition, housing access is a primary predictor of long-term disaster recovery in general. As the preparedness community points to new pandemic-related challenges in responding to disasters like floods, earthquakes, wildfires, and the upcoming hurricane season, the current lack of funding for housing relief may hamper our ability to respond to and recover from natural disasters.
Grassroots movements are calling for rent freezes and cancellations, limited credit penalties for missed payments, and flexible or deferred payment plans, as well as spreading awareness of federal mortgage forbearance rules to help people stay in their homes. Calls for emergency rental assistance, through additional funding for existing Housing and Urban Development programs such as the Community Development Block Grants, aim to shelter both tenants and property owners from financial uncertainty.
This is an important opportunity to allocate funding for comprehensive housing relief at the state and federal levels. For example, New York’s State Senate Bill S8139 would suspended rent payments for New York State residents who lost income or had to close their place of business due to COVID-19, and establish a coronavirus rental assistance fund. Housing activists in California also pushing for more extensive renter protections, including forgiveness of owed rent. Federally, proposed legislation includes the Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act, which seeks to protect renters on the verge of homelessness by addressing back rent and late fees, as well as the Emergency Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, The Paycheck Security Act, and the Automatic Boost to Communities Act. However, housing legislation should go further than just responding to the current crisis, and address the underlying economic conditions that have left low-income renters and homeowners uniquely vulnerable to disasters and their financial consequences.