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Opinions & Observations: How we can prevent further escalation of the homelessness crisis amid COVID-19

June 9, 2020 Áine Duggan
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In recent weeks at The Partnership for the Homeless, we are seeing more and more families like Rosa’s who are struggling to pay rent in the wake of COVID-19 related job loss. Rosa and her partner lost their food service and maintenance jobs in the first month of the lockdown, have since lost family members to COVID-19, and have exhausted their savings, as well as loans from family members, to pay rent and keep food on the table for their two children. Their landlord has threatened eviction knowing they have nothing left. Ten other families with similar stories called the week that Rosa contacted us. We intervene, mediate with landlords, provide financial assistance, make legal referrals, and liaise with City agencies to find solutions every day, all while knowing soon enough we won’t be able to hold back the tidal wave that’s coming. 

COVID-19 has exacted formidable stress and loss on countless low-income New Yorkers living paycheck to paycheck, with little to no savings. The brunt of its economic fallout will be borne by these same families, living in neighborhoods long since disenfranchised by structural discrimination, racism, and inequality.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that more than half (52 percent) of low-income households ($37,500 a year, for a family of three) experienced COVID-related job loss compared with less than one-third (32 percent) of upper-income ones ($112,600+). Similarly, a New School study shows nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the city’s estimated 1.2 million jobs lost paid less than $40,000 a year.

In a city where one in four people who rent their homes pay more than half of their income for rent, and 43 percent of low-wage workers have less than $500 in savings, this trajectory of job loss is coupled with skyrocketing rent arrears. Approximately 1.2 million New Yorkers could not pay rent last month.

Alone, New York’s eviction moratorium, recently extended until August 2020, is a temporary solution that simply delays, and potentially exacerbates, the inevitable. By the moratorium’s end, some households will face up to five months of rent arrears. Even in the best-case scenario of people regaining low-wage employment when the city reopens, they will have no ability to pay almost half a year of back rent.

The result will be an unprecedented number of New Yorkers with crippling levels of rent arrears turning for help at the same time to the city’s already under-resourced infrastructure of eviction prevention organizations.

Additionally, the moratorium is not a solution for families currently facing settlement hearings in ongoing virtual housing court proceedings. While some building owners should be commended for working with tenants to temporarily reduce or cancel rent bills, there are others who are ignoring the moratorium and harassing our most vulnerable neighbors. We’ve heard from undocumented immigrants being threatened by landlords, but afraid to challenge or officially report them

Similar to the moratorium, while well intended, the NYS Emergency Rent Relief Act is not fit for purpose. Capped at $100 million, it can help less than 3 percent of our city’s families who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and it completely excludes undocumented families.

The magnitude of the problem is such that it requires a combination of government measures with federal funding as the cornerstone. In recent weeks, some leaders have introduced measures that could safeguard all families in their homes.

For example, the HEROES Act proposes $100 billion in emergency rental assistance through the “Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act.” Ensuring these measures are included in the next relief package is vital to prevent millions of families from losing their homes.

Locally, our City leaders can ensure the city budget includes increased funding for rental assistance. Our State leaders still have the opportunity to support Senator Michael Gianaris’ bill to suspend rent payments for 90 days for tenants who have lost jobs, and to back more robust housing legislation, such as Home Stability Support.

COVID-19 has underscored the meaning and value of home and has shown how quickly solutions can be implemented when the political will exists. Unless all levels of government step up now, homelessness in our city will swell to a level we have never before witnessed. This eventuality is as preventable as it is predictable.

Áine Duggan is the president and CEO of the Partnership for the Homeless.

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