Preventing homelessness in a pandemic

Across the nation, in the depths of both a public health and an economic crisis, and in the midst of a national reckoning around racial justice, yet another crisis is going to hit soon. This crisis, one of evictions and foreclosures, will only exacerbate these other crises if Congress does not act to extend the supplemental unemployment benefits and provide assistance to homeowners and renters. If Congress fails to do so, the COVID-19 public health crisis will inevitably become a homelessness crisis.

The end of the $600 a week supplemental unemployment insurance benefit from the federal government and the termination of moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures at both the state and national levels place an estimated 20 million renters at risk of homelessness, with analyses showing that we may see as many as 11 million evictions over the next four months. This is five times the number of evictions that take place in the U.S. over the course of a typical year. As unemployment and economic displacement as a result of COVID-19 has hit communities of color the hardest, this tidal wave of evictions is likely to strike those communities first.

But these numbers do not convey the depth of suffering such an eviction wave will bring, made worse by the pandemic. When a family gets evicted, its members suffer mental anguish and children experience extreme disruption in their lives, affecting their emotional well-being and making engagement with school that much harder, especially when the school is online. If a member of the household is still employed, homelessness destroys routines, and the search for alternate housing can be so time-consuming that the worker is likely to lose any tenuous hold they may have on that job.

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In the midst of an economic catastrophe, landlords lose as well: new tenants are hard to find when millions of people are having trouble making rent and even those tenants who can pay rent may be hesitant to move. Merchants and banks also suffer, as an eviction surge has wide and lasting ripple effects: less money spent in the community means fewer jobs, commercial lease defaults, and the collapse of bank balance sheets, all of which we saw in the Great Recession of the late 2000s and the foreclosure crisis that followed. What’s different in this recession is that this level of displacement will only make fighting the pandemic much, much harder.

Such an outcome is not inevitable, however. Congress can take action, right now, that will keep the current public health and economic crisis from becoming a homelessness crisis.

First, plain and simple, Congress must extend the federal supplemental unemployment insurance benefits passed through the CARES Act, which expired at the end of July. We shouldn’t play politics with this sort of human and economic suffering in the middle of a pandemic.

Congress also needs to act now to help our nation’s renters. That’s why we’re calling on the federal government to provide rental assistance to families that are unable to attain or maintain housing stability or have insufficient resources to pay rent or utilities due to COVID-19. The Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act of 2020, which authorizes $100 billion in emergency rental assistance, would do just that. The bill is co-sponsored by 42 senators and is one of the priorities for the Democratic Caucus in the next package of relief legislation Congress is drafting.

In order for tenants to be able to navigate any rental or mortgage protections Congress affords them, though, housing counseling should be available. The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development has long supported a network of certified housing counseling providers across the country that guide and educate homeowners and renters so that families know their housing rights through low-cost assistance. This assistance helps families navigate complex housing laws and programs, secure better mortgage terms, and improve their housing conditions. When families receive housing counseling, they can expect better outcomes, including fewer foreclosures.

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Currently pending before Congress is the Coronavirus Housing Counsel Improvement Act, which would provide $700 million to boost housing counseling services across the country during COVID-19, dedicating 40 percent of those funds to minority and low-income homeowners and renters. Such an investment could save the federal government down the road by helping prevent eviction or foreclosure and the displacement of families. More people in their homes means less burden on homeless shelters, social services, and suffering families.

The public health crisis makes the need to prevent evictions and homelessness more acute. Nobody wins in an eviction, especially in a pandemic. Congress must take bold, yet simple, steps to ensure that we do not end up making it more difficult to fight the pandemic because we have a deeper homelessness crisis to address as well.

Christopher A. Coons is a U.S. senator from Delaware and a co-sponsor of the Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act and the Coronavirus Housing Counseling Improvement Act. Ray Brescia is a former tenant’s rights attorney, a professor at Albany Law School, and the author of The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions.