Housing Policy Must Change in Wake of COVID-19

COVID-19 will hurt the low-income and housing insecure the most. We must act now to protect them—and ensure safe housing for all going forward. Here's how.

Photo by flickr user duncan c., CC BY-NC 2.0

Photo by flickr user duncan c., CC BY-NC 2.0

The COVID-19 outbreak threatens the lives of many Americans and the livelihoods of many more. It is an urgent public health crisis of unprecedented scale, and one likely to disproportionately affect those with the least. Doctors, scientists, front-line service workers, and local government officials are making heroic efforts to flatten the curve. And nearly everyone is making sacrifices to try to curb the spread of the disease. Still, the number of cases will clearly grow, and the evidence from other countries suggests that those with lower incomes are more likely to catch the virus and to die from it. Our housing policies must adapt to address this reality.

The Equity Dimension

In the first stage of this pandemic, the people in the United States most at risk were those with the resources to take cruises and otherwise travel abroad. But as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, it will likely have disparate impacts on low-income households, low-wage workers, and those who are housing insecure. Consider that experts advise that the best strategies to protect oneself from COVID-19 are washing hands frequently, avoiding close contact with other people, and sheltering in place. For those fortunate enough to live in comfortable and safe housing, such sheltering is relatively easy. It may be inconvenient, but people with comfortable homes and adequate space in which to work and live can indeed largely minimize their risks, and conduct their day-to-day lives, by staying inside.

People living in crowded homes, however, may find it more difficult to work and learn remotely. Older adults in congregate living situations may be less able to distance themselves from others to minimize the odds of getting sick. People with front-line service jobs or lacking broadband internet access are unable to work remotely, putting both workers and their neighbors at greater risk of contracting the virus. The concentration of particular occupations in low- and moderate-income areas thus creates community risks.

To the extent that people living in poor-quality housing are able to protect themselves from the virus by staying indoors, they risk exacerbating other health conditions like asthma due to poor ventilation, erratic heating, or the presence of lead paint, mold, or vermin.

And most troubling, many people without homes cannot shelter in place at all. Returning citizens who are currently incarcerated face complex challenges in securing housing and employment even during times of prosperity, conditions that will be exacerbated in the months to come. San Francisco’s homeless individuals are exempt from the city’s recent shelter-in-place order, though public officials are encouraging them to seek shelter or other spaces, like churches and closed school campuses, where they can safely stay indoors. And New York City’s shelter providers are struggling to find ways to separate the many homeless individuals sleeping in dormitory-style shelters.

Housing Policy Is Health Policy

The epidemic also reinforces the critical role that housing plays in protecting our health, safety, and well-being. Major housing policy reforms have historically grown out of health crises. Progressive reformers successfully pushed for regulations to improve the sanitation and ventilation of crowded tenements at the end of the 19th century after two major cholera outbreaks and concerns about high rates of other contagious diseases like tuberculosis in U.S. cities. During the 1930s, members of Congress highlighted public health as a central justification for the federal public housing program. This epidemic will offer its own lessons that could spur a new wave of thinking and a set of policies to advance housing security and equity.

Unfortunately, in the near-term this epidemic will compound the pre-existing economic pressures households face, and may create a renewed housing crisis. As more people are laid off or see reduced hours, they will face difficulty making their monthly rent or mortgage payments and, consequently, may worry about their ability to stay in their homes. Most people, hopefully, will only face temporary job disruption and proposed federal aid may help to mitigate the financial distress. But it is unclear how expansive that aid will be, and those working in industries that will be hit hardest by the economic fallout from the virus, such as food and hospitality, tourism, and entertainment, are likely to suffer longer-term income reductions.

Housing providers may, in turn, struggle to keep their properties safe, clean, and well-maintained while their tenants are unable to make rental payments. Reductions in revenue are likely to be compounded by increased operating costs: as people spend more time at home, they cause more wear and tear in their living spaces and rack up higher utility bills. It will take more work to protect building staff and keep common areas clean at the same time that more staff will be forced to stay home to recuperate from illness or to take care of sick relatives or children home from school. Meanwhile, any needed capital repairs are likely to be deferred, which can both increase short-run operating costs and also put properties at longer-term risk. Nonprofits may face particular risk, but smaller for-profit operators are also unlikely to have ample reserves. Those managing housing for low-income seniors and people with disabilities face even greater challenges.

Current policy discussions center, appropriately, on the unprecedented steps taken now to prevent the worst-case scenarios of the COVID-19 crisis. But we should not lose sight of the need for housing-related measures that could mitigate the severity of the epidemic’s effects. On the heels of what is hopefully a short-lived health crisis may come a wave of evictions and foreclosures that undermine the physical and economic recovery of our nation. The nation’s housing system has never before faced these extraordinary conditions—being pressed into intense service even as economic conditions collapse. It will take creative thinking and decisive action now to prevent the additional, avoidable damage a renewed housing crisis could bring.

How Housing Policy Must Change

There are several critical actions to take immediately to prevent the additional, avoidable damage a renewed housing crisis could bring.

First, government must act soon to ensure that families and individuals can get access to housing if they are not already housed and stay in their homes in the event of illness and/or economic hardship. Much has been done already. For example, the Federal Housing Finance Agency recently announced that it would suspend foreclosures and foreclosure-related evictions on homes with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for at least two months, a step that will temporarily protect 8.1 million homeowners. It also required that multifamily owners seeking mortgage forbearance must agree not to evict tenants for the length of the forbearance. Meanwhile, local governments across the country are instituting eviction moratoriums to keep renters in their homes. But more assistance will be needed.

Second, we need to provide property managers with the tools and information they need to keep their residents healthy, and to act quickly and efficiently to confirm and contain outbreaks that do occur. This is particularly essential for those managing developments with large numbers of vulnerable seniors.

Third, we need to address our existing homelessness crisis with renewed urgency, recognizing that street homelessness and poor shelter conditions now represent an enormous risk to both individual and public health. Resources to conduct homeless outreach and offer safe, clean temporary housing, possibly in now-empty hotels, schools, and college gyms and dormitories, could make a substantial difference both in flattening the curve and in minimizing economic damage.

This crisis shows the need to think about housing as a strategy to prevent or abate future pandemics by alleviating overcrowding, reducing homelessness, and addressing unsafe conditions. Policymakers should consider fully funding housing choice vouchers for all eligible families, a universal renter tax credit, or alternatives that place housing assistance in the same category as health care and nutrition: a fundamental tenet of our social safety net.

We should also be actively drawing lessons from current public and private efforts about how housing policies and programs—including rapid, short-term housing assistance, rent forbearance, and other protections against income and expense volatility—can do more to help people navigate short-term emergencies.

Transformational thinking is necessary to help our housing system to mitigate, rather than magnify, the harms of intense economic disruption, and keep vulnerable populations—and all Americans—healthy and safe.

Want to read more about housing policy and practice as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic? Check out our COVID-19 page, and sign up for Shelterforce Weekly so you don’t miss the latest.

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