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Cases of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, have erupted in New York City. As of Wednesday, there were 923 positive test cases. In the face of the crisis, the city has implemented a number of emergency measures, such as closing restaurants and bars and banning gatherings of over 50 people. The impact of those measures are now rippling through the economy, and in order to prevent some of the most severe consequences, New York state on Sunday indefinitely suspended eviction proceedings.
“The only place people have to be is at home,” pointed out Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a coalition of affordable housing advocates. “What if you didn’t have one?” If a family finds itself facing eviction because it can’t afford rent, the only options are to crowd into family and friends’ houses, enter an overcrowded shelter that may already be housing residents who are infected, or go on the street with no access to sanitary facilities. “The two fears are eviction and a spike in homelessness,” Weaver said. “Also death.”
As the severity of the crisis became clear, the coalition sprang into action, launching a petition calling on state leaders to impose a moratorium on evictions, rent increases, and utility shutoffs. As of Wednesday it had attracted over 16,000 signatures. New York lawmakers introduced legislation last week that would impose a statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. Then, on Sunday evening, the state’s chief administrative judge halted all evictions.
Weaver is not done fighting. The suspension of eviction proceedings is “the first step, bare minimum,” she said. “The eviction moratorium kicks the can down the road, but not forever.” Layoffs are already rolling in across the country. So the coalition is planning to call for temporary rent and mortgage forgiveness for all New Yorkers. “It’s more urgent now than ever before,” she said.
New York is hardly the only affected community. Advocates at the local, state, and national level are working hard to ensure that vulnerable families aren’t pushed out of their homes at the exact time when they most need to remain inside of them.
On Friday, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley sent a letter to President Trump pressing him to issue a nationwide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures—both on the initiation of new ones as well as the suspension of those already in process—at all properties either owned or insured by the Federal Housing Administration, Veterans Affairs, the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Housing Service, or government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. On Wednesday, Warren, Merkley, and Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Katie Porter, sent letters to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Rental Home Council, and the American Apartment Owners Association calling for an eviction moratorium.
Their calls were heard. On Wednesday, President Trump directed HUD to suspend all evictions and foreclosures. Any single-family home owners with mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration—there are 8.1 million in total, with 180,000 in danger of foreclosure—won’t face eviction or foreclosure for 60 days. The Federal Housing Finance Agency said Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—which together financed over 5.5 million mortgages in 2019—would halt foreclosures. For public housing residents, of whom there are 2 million nationwide, the relief is not yet final: HUD Secretary Ben Carson later clarified that he was still seeking the authority to prevent evictions in public housing.
But there is more to be done to protect renters and homeowners. So states and cities are taking their own action. Courts and court actors like sheriffs and judges have halted housing proceedings in Delaware, Kentucky, Cook County, Illinois, Nashville, and New Orleans. Lawmakers in Portland and the surrounding county, Seattle, and the District of Columbia have imposed eviction moratoriums. Police in Miami-Dade said they would suspend eviction activities “until further notice,” essentially bringing them to a halt. The Baltimore sheriff’s office will stop evicting people as long as schools are closed. Boston’s housing authority won’t evict anyone from public housing during the state’s emergency, while Massachusetts courts are postponing appearances, including eviction. Lawmakers in Massachusetts, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and San Jose have also introduced legislation to impose eviction moratoriums. California’s governor issued an executive order allowing cities to suspend evictions.
In Massachusetts, while advocates are happy that Boston’s public housing residents won’t be evicted and most other evictions may be delayed, some of the hearings may still proceed. So they’re pushing for a more comprehensive legislative response, even though the legislature is not currently in session. “We are hopeful that can move,” Rachel Heller, CEO of Citizens’ Housing And Planning Association in Massachusetts, said on Monday. Her organization is also working on creating a new flexible rent assistance program for both tenants and landlords of affordable housing. “We are working on multiple policy responses right now,” she said.
“What we really need right now from the federal level is a lot of money,” she added. “Rental assistance, homelessness prevention funds.”
A complete nationwide moratorium on eviction and foreclosure at any kind of property is also being discussed in Congress. “I wouldn’t say yet that there’s real traction,” Yentel said, but “there’s an increased interest and level of seriousness in the conversations.” Senator Sherrod Brown is advocating for housing-related measures to be included in the Senate’s coronavirus response legislation, including foreclosure and eviction moratoriums as well as rental assistance and emergency mortgage assistance. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has called for any relief package to address housing, and Senate Democrats included six months of payment forbearance of federally insured or guaranteed mortgages as well as emergency rental and mortgage assistance in their proposal.
But nothing has been included in the aid packages so far, including the one passed in the House. The National Low Income Housing Coalition is trying to get these measures included as the bill is lobbed back and forth between the House and Senate or as the next round is put together, and Yentel thinks some Republicans—such as Senators Todd Young, Rob Portman, Susan Collins, and Mitt Romney—might get on board.
Even before this crisis hit, there were nearly 21 million households that were paying more than what is considered affordable in rent. About 40 percent of American adults would have trouble covering an unexpected $400 expense without going into debt or borrowing from family or friends. Now the coronavirus is pushing many families who already lived on the edge over it. In a survey conducted in mid-March, about one in five Americans said they or someone in their household had already either lost a job or had their hours reduced. As states shut down restaurants and bars, public schools, and large gathering places like concert venues and museums, even more workers are at risk of losing income.
Housing advocates fear that the economic fallout of the coronavirus may push thousands more into homelessness, a nationwide crisis that has trended upward recently. “We have to ensure that more people aren’t pushed into homelessness through evictions or foreclosures,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said. “We’re clearly in a recession at the moment or we’re headed into one,” she added. “As always, the lowest-income earners will be first hit and hardest hit.”
In Silicon Valley, the housing market is already extremely unaffordable. “Any kind of lost hours or income, we already know are going to put people at greater risk of homelessness,” David Low, director of policy and communications at Destination: HOME, said on Monday’s strategy call. “This is just going to have a domino effect if we see people losing their homes.” One confirmed death due to the coronavirus in California was a homeless person, likely the first such case.
“We need additional capacity,” Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said on Monday’s call. “We needed it before there was a global pandemic and we really need it now.” Washington was one of the places in the United States where the virus first erupted; so far there have been 904 positive cases and 48 deaths. The pandemic is colliding with the existing homelessness crisis in the state; in a given night last year, there were nearly 22,000 homeless people in the state. Eisinger noted that they need more building space for quarantines, recovery, and simply additional shelter to bring people inside where they can stay away from others. “Here in King County, despite the fact that we have a strong network of [homeless services] providers, despite the fact that people are working incredibly hard to do incredibly hard, vital work, we are behind where we need to be,” she said.
“We have to ensure that we’re not adding to the number of people who are homeless during such a crisis,” Yentel added. “We already have tremendous concerns about people who are homeless and about all of the challenges that coronavirus presents for people who are sleeping in shelters or sleeping on sidewalks or in encampments.”
Then there’s what comes once the emergency declarations are lifted. After disasters, Yentel’s organization has typically called for a form of rent control to make sure landlords don’t impose rent hikes once the crisis has passed, similar to the way the federal government bans price gouging. It is now pushing for a response once the immediate emergency has passed, including housing counseling services, much more funding for legal aid, and rental assistance.
“One thing that coronavirus is hopefully making many of us wake up to is the massive holes in our country’s social safety net, and how that impacts the health and security of all of us,” Yentel said. “I hope we have a new, a shared belief in the need to repair that social safety net.”
The work won’t end whenever the crisis subsides. “The thing about the coronavirus is that it is just throwing into sharp relief the challenges and problems that we already faced as a city and state,” Weaver said. “It’s just making every problem with inequality and housing injustice that we already have more urgent and more obvious.” The coalition is planning an “aggressive” push for a bill already before the legislature that would provide a rental subsidy for low-income residents who are facing eviction, already homeless, or may lose housing due to domestic violence or hazardous living conditions. Before, it was unlikely to pass. Now there may be more appetite.
“We need to use this moment of crisis to get set up for when the crisis is over,” Weaver said.