COVID-19 and Housing + Homelessness

FEDERAL ACTION NEEDED:
COVID-19 AND HOUSING/HOMELESSNESS

America is experiencing a public health crisis. COVID-19 affects and will affect our poor and working-class community members the most. Rather than prioritizing public money on corporate bailouts, we can stand united with frontline communities to ensure our collective well-being through this crisis and rewrite the rules to build a healthier and stronger country for generations to come.

 

People who are housing-insecure or currently homeless are at a higher risk of being exposed to the virus, becoming ill, and suffering catastrophic health outcomes. Low-income tenants are also at risk if they get ill and/or cannot work (because they're monitoring symptoms, at risk, watching kids, etc.) and therefore can't make their rent. Millions of Americans are housing cost-burdened,¹ over half a million sleep on the streets on a given night,² and 40 percent do not have enough cash to cover a $400 emergency.³

 

We demand federal⁴ action to:

  • Transfer $2,000 in cash to all people in the United States, immediately;

  • Institute a nationwide rent/mortgage holiday, rent/mortgage freeze, and/or rental assistance;

  • Enact a nationwide eviction/foreclosure moratorium;

  • Ban utility shut-offs and restore service to all households;

  • Provide homes and expanded services for people experiencing homelessness;

  • Provide immediate support for public housing residents; and,

  • Ensure a just, green transition post-pandemic.

 

Finally, this crisis illuminates the need for a robust public sector that can guarantee housing as a right: a Homes Guarantee. While we organize for short-term relief for our vulnerable community members, we must not lose focus on the goal that housing must be guaranteed as a public good, not treated as a commodity. We are here for the longer struggle to ensure that everyone has a safe, accessible, sustainable, truly and permanently affordable home.

CASH TRANSFER TO POOR AND WORKING PEOPLE

Disruptions to the economy and everyday life in response to the COVID-19 pandemic mean that millions will lose their income and financial security. To get through the months ahead, people need cash, quickly.

 

  • Immediate cash transfer: An immediate cash transfer should supplement, not replace, other forms of public support, including paid sick leave, which should be extended to cover every worker.⁵ This emergency financial assistance—which will also help stabilize the economy—is essential for Americans struggling day-to-day during the crisis. This cash will help people cover payments for basic needs, including rent and other necessities. $2,000 in cash to all people (adults and children) will be a reasonable start, and will  need to be repeated if people can’t return to their jobs in the next 6 weeks. The government must do everything within its power to ensure the true universality of this program, reaching especially the most vulnerable communities, including people experiencing homelessness.

NATIONWIDE RENT/MORTGAGE HOLIDAY, RENT/MORTGAGE FREEZE, RENTAL ASSISTANCE

Every month, millions of Americans pay more than they can afford to keep a roof over their head. This public health emergency will exacerbate that stress, causing millions to face substantial financial loss. We must ensure people can stay in their homes, as a matter of public safety.

 

  • Rent/mortgage holiday: Congress should institute an immediate rent and mortgage holiday for public and private properties by passing a law reducing rents and mortgage payments to zero for the duration of the crisis. Congress should also suspend the accrual of interest on existing mortgages and remove the requirement to make payments, so that homeowners do not accrue debt.⁶ Along with an eviction moratorium, this would be the most effective means of minimizing the number of people who fall through the cracks and become homeless during the crisis. The holiday should last through the duration of the declared state of emergency and the entire recovery period.

  • Rent/mortgage level freeze and targeted assistance: If Congress cannot implement a full rent/mortgage holiday, they should pass legislation to institute a nationwide rent and mortgage freeze to eliminate all rent increases and lock in mortgage payments at current levels, as a second-best option. A mortgage freeze would apply to residential properties, including renter-occupied properties, to prevent disruption for as many tenants as possible. The freeze should include a ban on fees for missed or late rent/mortgage payments. Such a ban should go into effect immediately.

  • Rental/mortgage assistance: The government should launch a national emergency relief fund of at least $120 billion to provide immediate rental and mortgage assistance to people who risk losing their homes because of sickness, inability to work, or any other factors related to COVID-19. This fund should launch immediately, and should be accessible to all, without any means-testing, and without barriers to entry, like lengthy paperwork or application fees.

EVICTION/FORECLOSURE MORATORIUM

No one should be displaced from their home under any circumstances as we grapple with the spread of COVID-19. Many state and local governments have implemented measures to prevent people losing their homes through eviction or foreclosure. This should be extended nationwide.

 

  • Eviction/foreclosure moratorium: Congress should pass legislation barring all eviction proceedings, including eviction filings, court hearings, and executions of eviction judgments (even those made prior to the current state of emergency). The action should also block law enforcement (sheriffs, municipal police departments, and all other relevant parties) from carrying out any evictions. Congress should also halt declarations of foreclosure and sales of foreclosed properties for the foreseeable future. The moratorium should last through the duration of the declared state of emergency and the entire recovery period.

  • Penalties for violators: Many landlords do not adhere to legal processes when evicting tenants. That behavior is even more cruel during times like these, and it should be duly punished. Congress should determine severe penalties for banks, corporations, and individuals in violation of this moratorium, including but not limited to fines and/or loss of license to do business.

UTILITY SHUT-OFFS BAN AND RESTORATION OF SERVICE

Utilities like water, gas, electric, and internet should be provided as a public good, especially during a public health crisis. Utility shut-offs should be suspended. Beyond a ban on shut-offs, and to ensure true health equity, utility services should be restored to all households, regardless of ability to pay.

 

  • Ban on utility shut-offs: The federal government must follow the example of dozens of local and state governments by issuing a nationwide ban on utility shut-offs during the pandemic. This ban should encompass water, gas, electricity, cellphones, landlines, and the internet. This ban should be a condition for receiving federal aid in mitigating the impacts of the crisis. The ban should last through the duration of the declared state of emergency and the entire recovery period.

  • Restoration of utility service: Beyond ending shut-offs, the federal government must compel states and localities to restore utility services to all households, even if they faced shut-offs before the ban. Water, gas, and electricity are critical for all households to remain safe and healthy at home. Internet must be provided, through emergency hotspots or other means, in every possible geography to ensure dissemination of accurate and timely information. Restoration of utility service and widespread provision of broadband may also be offered as conditions for receiving federal aid.

HOMES, EXPANDED SERVICES FOR PEOPLE EXPERIENCING HOMELESSNESS

Over half a million people experience homelessness in America on a given night. That number does not account for the people who are un-housed, living out of cars, on couches, or in motels. People experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. We must immediately provide homes, emergency shelters, expanded services, and reliable information to people experiencing homelessness.

 

  • Homes for people experiencing homelessness: This public health emergency requires a commitment to provide a home for everyone who needs one. If official guidance compels the public to “stay home” to contain the spread of COVID-19, we must create that possibility for people experiencing homelessness. The federal government must take unprecedented action to convert vacant hotel/motel rooms, dorms, schools, hospitals, and large stadiums into housing for people who need it, including people experiencing homelessness and people living in unsafe/unsanitary conditions now. The federal government should exercise eminent domain, and incentivize state and local governments to do the same, in order to claim private property suitable for habitation and make those spaces available for people in need of shelter.⁷

  • Emergency sanitation sites: For people who will not or cannot move indoors, the federal government must build emergency sanitation sites near homeless encampments and major public transit hubs to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Sanitation sites should include 24 hour restrooms and showers, laundry, free hygiene supplies, COVID-19 testing, case worker availability, and disease prevention information in multiple languages.

  • Expanded services: The federal government must provide an infusion of resources to state and local governments for expanded homeless services. Local health departments, community health clinics, shelters, and other frontline service providers should receive this funding to cover staff overtime pay and necessary supplies, like sanitizers, medicine, masks, etc. Funds should come to local governments on the condition that they commit not to fund providers that discriminate against individuals on the basis of their age, race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, or religion. Dissemination of reliable information must be paramount

  • End to sweeps: Congress should issue an immediate moratorium on encampment sweeps, closures, and vehicle tows. Sweeps and other practices that criminalize homelessness pose a serious health risk, as they disrupt consistent access to services and ability for outreach and health workers to provide continuous care.

SUPPORT FOR PUBLIC HOUSING RESIDENTS

Over two million residents of public housing across the country are already vulnerable to COVID-19 due to poor living conditions, mold, leaks, no heat, unsafe water, and more. Congress must provide ongoing support to ensure the health and safety of public housing residents.

 

  • Eviction moratorium and rent holiday: HUD should issue orders to all public housing authorities to suspend evictions, recertifications, and notices of termination. HUD should also institute nationwide a rent holiday for all public housing residents for the duration of this crisis for the full recovery period.

  • Personnel and maintenance: HUD must ensure personnel and processes to address immediate needs that may jeopardize residents’ safety. Many public housing residents struggle with ongoing capital repair needs in their buildings. Their homes are not safe and sanitary, and especially not during a public health emergency. Congress can take further action by passing the Public Housing Emergency Response Act to fund repairs and labor to address immediate and long term concerns to public housing residents’ health.

JUST TRANSITION POST-PANDEMIC

Congress should legislate, in consultation with frontline communities, a just transition package that accounts for the full financial, social, and other losses endured as a result of COVID-19. As a start, such a package can include:

 

  • Extended cash transfers: For at least one year after the state of emergency is declared over, extended cash transfers can be used to sustain economic recovery from the bottom up, and bridge the gap between medical recovery and economic recovery. This should happen in tandem with an extension of paid sick leave to cover all workers.

  • Debt forgiveness: The financial loss will not end with the end of the declared state of emergency. To account for that, the federal government must take a long term approach by forgiving rent, mortgage, and utility debts accrued during this time. The government can go even further to ensure long term financial security by forgiving other debts and payments, like student loans, medical debt, credit card debt, auto payments, government fines, and other burdens.

  • Homes Guarantee and public housing: In order to prevent such a crisis from occurring in the future, Congress must commit to a Homes Guarantee. A first step post-pandemic could be repealing the Fairthcloth Amendment and immediate infusion of hundreds of billions of dollars into the National Housing Trust Fund. A federal recovery program could include massive construction of no-carbon social housing to begin to alleviate a chronic shortage, reboot the economy, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, shift the construction industry towards sustainable, climate-friendly methods. Low-income people should benefit immediately and in the long-term, through jobs, homes, and other investments in communities that were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and communities that have been suffering housing inequities for the longest.

The following organizations contributed to this document and endorse these demands: People’s Action, Washington CAN, Community Voices Heard, Jane Addams Senior Caucus, ONE Northside, POWER, VOCAL-NY, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Citizen Action of New York, Reclaim Philly, Maine People’s Alliance, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, PUSH Buffalo, KC Tenants, Housing Justice for All NY, MHAction, Right to the City, Action Center for Race and the Economy (ACRE), Alliance for Housing Justice, Center for Popular Democracy, Partnership for Working Families, PolicyLink, Public Advocates, The Democracy Collaborative, and The Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

¹ Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2020

² National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2020

³ Federal Reserve, 2019

⁴ NOTE: These are federal demands. Not all of them will work at the state level, and there are demands at the state/local levels that would not work for federal action. We will be publishing another set of demands later this week for state/local action.

Rep. Ro Khanna, Rep. Tim Ryan proposed legislation

⁶ If necessary, a package of assistance for landlords suffering an unexpected loss of rental income could be funded through general progressive taxation. Such a program would place the burden of applying for assistance onto landlords, who are better positioned to navigate applications and weather modest delays. Participation should be conditioned on the properties fully meeting safety codes and the demonstrated financial needs of the owner, and could include the simple buyout of properties by the government to be run after the crisis as public housing.

⁷ As an immediate solution if eminent domain is not possible, the government can consider issuing hotel vouchers or funding states/localities to do so.

©2020 by Housing Justice Platform. Artwork by First Fight Inc. Privacy