The science is clear – it is critical for people to physically distance in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, prevent our healthcare system from becoming completely overwhelmed, and save lives. But housing insecurity is currently undermining public health:
- Emergency orders have temporarily suspended eviction cases in court. But new cases are still being filed, tenants are still getting notices calling them to court, and landlords may be able to use existing “executions” to throw people onto the street.
- New federal measures protect some groups of tenants against eviction and protect borrowers with certain types of mortgages against foreclosure. But a huge number of renters and homeowners are left out of these protections.
- Homeowners and tenants alike are panicking about April mortgage and rent payments. Many households have been hit by huge decreases in income or increases in expenses. The federal coronavirus stimulus does not solve the problem. Some people will experience delays in getting aid and others – including workers in the informal economy and undocumented people – will not qualify for unemployment or other benefits at all.
- Unhoused people in many communities do not have reliable access to food, clean bathrooms, hand washing facilities, or safe places to sleep. There is no clear statewide plan to allow appropriate isolation for people who are unhoused, living in tight quarters in shelter, or living in overcrowded apartments.
We need immediate action to address these concerns so that people feel confident they can stay home. Otherwise, many workers will worry their housing is in jeopardy and feel compelled to break with physical distancing to earn income in the formal economy or at cash jobs. And those at “essential” workplaces will be more susceptible to pressure to continue to go to work even while sick.
All of this would undermine efforts to “flatten the curve,” leading to an even worse public health catastrophe. Failure to deal with these issues could also lead to a huge post-crisis wave of evictions, foreclosures, displacement, and financial distress on top of the housing crisis and extreme wealth inequality that existed before the pandemic. It would be unconscionable to allow already vulnerable people to bear the heaviest cost for a crisis they did not create.
Eventually, we will move out of the initial stage of the COVID-19 disaster and further into a painful and widespread economic downturn. That’s why we must follow up the emergency measures described above by taking these steps toward guaranteeing safe, affordable, dignified homes for all:
- lifting the ban on local rent stabilization policies
- enabling municipalities to implement real estate transfer fees
- guaranteeing a right to counsel in eviction cases
- instituting a tenant right to purchase
- fully funding the RAFT rental arrearage program (including the “upstream” component) to prevent homelessness
- removing barriers to Emergency Assistance (EA) family shelter
- passing legislation to protect the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness
- dramatically increasing funding and financing for affordable housing, including community land trusts, rental vouchers, social housing, and limited equity cooperatives
As this crisis has demonstrated, we cannot continue with a system that puts profit before the human right to housing.