POV: COVID-19 Has Unmasked an Unprecedented Housing Crisis—Here’s How to Fix It
We need to begin developing and implementing effective, long-term relief measures
Almost no one is escaping the healthcare crisis and economic challenges wrought by the coronavirus. For communities of color, the racial capitalism system exacerbates the pandemic’s impact. The multiracial working class—whose resources have been systematically stripped—is clearly bearing the full force of the pandemic.
Most of these people are part of the 80 million renters in the United States. Others are homeowners struggling to meet mortgage payments. Increasing numbers face the threat of eviction or foreclosure, and many more will do so as the economy continues to contract. Cities like Boston—where we live—and New York already faced a housing crisis before the pandemic hit.
Now we face a national housing problem of unprecedented magnitude, made even more dire this summer as eviction moratoriums begin to expire.
Even before the crisis, the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found nearly half of all renters paid more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Some 20 percent didn’t have $400 to cover an unexpected cost, the 2018 Federal Reserve Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking revealed.
Jump forward to the pandemic, and nearly 20 percent of US renters didn’t pay their May rent within the first several days of the month, up two percentage points from the same time in 2019, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. In Boston alone, 78 percent of evictions in a seven-week period—before an eviction moratorium took effect—were in census tracts where people of color are a majority of residents. (Compare that to 2014-2016, when 70 percent of market-rate eviction filings were in those tracts, according to a report from MIT and City Life/Vida Urbana. Only about half the city’s rental housing is in those areas.)
It is clear: we must take action now. To do this, policymakers have an immediate responsibility to begin developing and implementing effective, long-term relief measures.
So far, governmental responses to this crisis have proven woefully inadequate. The corporate-friendly economic stimulus package passed by Congress provided limited eviction protection for renters—only for those who live in a multifamily building or single family home that has a federally backed mortgage.
Cities across the country rushed to embrace the idea of eviction moratoriums. The best of these prohibited all evictions, either for nonpayment of rent or for any other reason, related to COVID-19 or not. But—and this is the critical point—in almost all of these policies, the rent tenants owe is not being forgiven, just deferred until after the crisis has passed.
So, while widespread evictions in the present moment might be prevented, the inability of renters to pay the significant rent debt they’ve accumulated in the meantime could well result in a tremendous surge in evictions as the economy continues to reopen and these policies are lifted.
Clearly, the magnitude of the current housing crisis calls for much bolder, more visionary solutions that begin to address not just the immediate threats at hand, but also the long-term challenges of ensuring adequate, affordable housing for every American.
Housing crisis solutions
The current economic situation demands an emergency program of comprehensive relief for renters and homeowners, whether they are working or not. The goal is to secure people’s right to remain in their homes for the duration of this crisis period and until the economy begins to recover.
As an immediate first step, state and local governments should impose the following: a freeze on the collection of all rents and utility payments, a suspension of mortgage interest accrual on owner-occupied and rental housing, and a moratorium on all evictions and foreclosures. Governments in Italy and France have already enacted similar measures.
In the United States, legislation introduced in April by US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is an excellent start to addressing the severe crisis in housing. It would provide relief to the millions of Americans at risk of housing instability and homelessness. In Boston, Massachusetts Representative Mike Connolly (D-26th Middlesex) introduced the COVID-19 Housing Stability Act, which aims to freeze rents, cancel evictions, and provide economic relief for both homeowners and renters.
Decisions about the duration of these policies must be made with significant community participation, and not left to government officials, many of whom have a long history of cozy relationships with powerful real estate interests.
To ensure everyone can safely shelter in place and practice social distancing, we need to address ongoing problems of overcrowding and homelessness. Remember, on any given night in this country, over 500,000 people are forced to sleep on the streets. Vacant public and private buildings, hotels, office spaces, and other unoccupied properties should be opened up to provide people in need with a place to stay, regardless of their ability to pay. California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom’s April announcement making at least 15,000 hotel rooms available for individuals experiencing homelessness is a step in the right direction.
The close housing conditions at government incarceration facilities put the populations in these facilities at high risk of infection and need to be reduced to a minimum, while those convicted of nonviolent crimes should be released from prison. Immigration detention centers are experiencing the same, warranting that they be immediately closed. This will mean that we must also take steps to secure accessible and safe transitional housing for those who are released.
While these actions may seem challenging, they actually represent the minimum effort necessary to get us through the present crisis. They are not the ultimate solution to this nation’s housing crisis. Unfortunately, for that, we need much more.
A housing justice wish list would include a recognition of decent housing as a basic right of all Americans, widespread availability of public and social housing, effective rent control, the abolition of homelessness, and a comprehensive tenants’ bill of rights in all housing policy and legislation. It would insist on an immediate end to the racial and class inequalities that have historically dominated housing policies in the United States
If you are wondering whether this can be done—it can. Finland has adopted many elements of this agenda. The result? It is the only European nation where homelessness has decreased significantly in recent years as the result of a shared commitment to housing security across government and NGOs. As commentators note, after this crisis is over, we will not be returning to anything like the preexisting “normal.” This will be a different country; let’s do everything we can now to ensure that it’s not just a different country, but a better one.
Dawn Belkin Martinez is a School of Social Work clinical associate professor and associate dean for equity and inclusion; she can be reached at email@example.com. Linda Sprague Martinez is an SSW associate professor; she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Judith C. Scott is an SSW assistant professor; she can be reached at email@example.com. They are social workers in the Boston area.
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