The federal government should take the following actions to mitigate the devastating economic effects the COVID-19 pandemic is having on our communities and ensure that all individuals and families are stably housed.
Institute a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.
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.
- Eviction/foreclosure protections must be extended so that people are not evicted or foreclosed upon later, after the crisis has passed as a result of their inability to pay rents or mortgages during this time of crisis.
- 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 violators should be held accountable. 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 a license to do business.
Suspend rent/mortgage nationwide, suspend rent increases, and provide 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 suspension: Congress should institute an immediate rent and mortgage suspension 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. 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 suspension should last through the duration of the declared state of emergency and the entire recovery period.
- Rent/mortgage forgiveness. The government must also declare that rent and mortgages suspended during this time of great crisis must be forgiven. For people who cannot pay their rents and mortgages now because they have lost work, saddling them with a debt when they regain the ability to pay will ensure that they remain in permanent economic crisis.
- Rental/mortgage assistance. If the government does not immediately suspend rents and mortgages, the government must 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.
- Rent/mortgage freeze and targeted assistance: Congress must also pass legislation to institute a nationwide rent and mortgage freeze to eliminate all rent increases and lock in mortgage payments at current levels. 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 and last until there is sufficient economic recovery from this crisis.
Ban utility shut-offs and restore service to all households.
Utilities like water, gas, electric, and internet should be provided as a public good, especially during a public health crisis. Utility shut-offs must be suspended. Beyond a ban on shut-offs, and to ensure true health equity, utility services must be restored to all households, regardless of the 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.
Provide housing and expanded services for people experiencing homelessness.
By conservative estimates, 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 housing and 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, and any buildings suitable for residential habitation that allows for physical distancing into housing for people who need it, including people experiencing homelessness and people living in unsafe/unsanitary conditions now. The federal government should temporarily commandeer empty and under-utilized buildings that are suitable for residential habitation and incentivize state and local governments to do the same, in order to make these spaces available for people in need of shelter.
- Emergency sanitation sites: For people who will not or cannot move indoors, the federal government must immediately fund and direct local governments to immediately 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, physical or mental ability, or religion. Dissemination of reliable information must be paramount
Provide 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 suspension: HUD should issue orders to all public housing authorities to suspend evictions, recertifications, and notices of termination. HUD should also institute nationwide a rent suspension for all public housing residents for the duration of this crisis and 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.
Create a just transition post pandemic.
Congress should legislate, in consultation with impacted 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 must 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.
- Pass legislation to implement the Homes Guarantee and create new social housing to provide permanent affordable 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 should be to repeal the 1999 Faircloth Amendment. This law, signed by President Bill Clinton, forbade the creation of new public housing by the federal government. The federal government needs to begin an 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, and 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 generations.
A special thanks to People’s Action for their insight, research, and leading the discussion on the important issue of a Homes Guarantee. Here is a link to the People’s Action policy memo from which many of these demands are drawn.