The blog of the Urban Institute
March 19, 2020

Immediate Federal Action Is Needed to Keep People Housed in the Face of the Pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in the US, having a home matters now more than ever. But many Americans do not have a place to be safe, and many will risk losing their homes in the economic fallout.

Successfully fighting the pandemic requires keeping people in their homes and getting people without homes into temporary shelters and addressing their medical needs. If we don’t take these steps, we risk adding to human suffering and increasing society-wide transmission rates, which will undermine containment and mitigation efforts.

Recently passed by Congress and signed by the president, H.R. 6201: Families First Coronavirus Response Act includes funds for testing, sick leave, family medical leave, unemployment, and food aid, but notably left out was any assistance for renters and people experiencing homelessness.

COVID-19 will exacerbate existing housing problems

The state of the nation’s housing is inequitable and unprepared for many. If you are of low or modest income, you have likely experienced problems paying rent, even during the recent economic expansion.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, nearly 11 million renters experienced severe housing cost burden, paying more than half their incomes toward rent. Many were on the edge of missing rent payments and at risk for eviction. Evictions lead to doubling up, overcrowding, and increases in homelessness.

On any given night in 2019, about 550,000 people were homeless, 200,000 were living unsheltered on the street, and many more—about 1.4 million—used shelters over the course of the year.

As we consider mass school closures, we need to take note of the 1.5 million school-age children who are homeless or living doubled up.

What are the policy solutions?

Many already at risk of losing their housing certainly will if swift and targeted steps are not taken. Containing COVID-19 requires people to stay home. If legislation coming from Congress and the administration was to fully support all people staying home, they could consider the following strategies to ensure people can keep their homes and access shelter if they do not have one:

  • Expand funds for homelessness and eviction prevention and rapid re-housing. During the Great Recession in 2008, Congress included $1.5 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. These funds were deployed rapidly to aid homeless service providers across the country. As a result, 1.3 million Americans who were homeless or as risk of homelessness received short- and medium-term financial assistance and housing stabilization services. There’s evidence it worked. Considering how many people will be out of work and the looming threat of a recession, we need a much bigger—closer to five times as much—and faster version of this program.
  • Pass a national moratorium on eviction for renters. Many local jurisdictions—Austin, Miami-Dade, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle—have banned evictions through executive measures or court orders, and others are following with similar measures. Trump just announced a 60-day foreclosure (PDF)and eviction moratorium for all Federal Housing Administration–insured single-family mortgages, as well as loans secured through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Although important for homeowners at risk of missing payments, this moratorium does not address most multifamily rental properties nor single-family properties without mortgages, which includes a significant share of all renters who may need relief. Passing a national eviction moratorium for renters will help people remain in their homes without the stress and health risks that come with housing insecurity and create time for rental assistance through homeless prevention and rapid re-housing funds to catch up with need.
  • Create a safety net for those who need it, and give cash. Many families have little to no savings to help them weather this crisis. Investments in social programs are critical. The best way to help these families right now is to give cash so they can spend it on what they need, including food and medicine. These efforts would include increases in cash assistance though Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and providing direct stimulus payments to get cash into people’s hands as quickly as possible. Although the current bill includes some emergency provisions for food assistance, Congress will need to go a lot further.
  • Expand the availability of temporary shelter by allowing homelessness service providers to use federal surplus property. Although allowed under current law, the administration has been slow to approve the use of federal properties as homeless shelters. Congress could instruct the General Services Administration and Department of Health and Human Services to identify properties and make them available to governors. Increasing shelter allows communities to bring more people inside, increase the space between beds, and allow for isolation practices, decreasing transmission rates and reducing pressure on hospitals and public health agencies.
  • Launch a federal tax relief fund for hotels that open their doors to people experiencing homelessness. California Governor Gavin Newsom recently issued an executive order to allow the state to “commandeer hotels and medical facilities to treat coronavirus patients,” a key step to preventing outbreaks in places with high rates of unsheltered homelessness. Congress could encourage other jurisdictions to do the same and provide incentives for hotels and motels to participate.
  • Provide emergency funds to shelters and expand medical respite care. One challenge that predates the COVID-19 pandemic is that most shelters have limited hours and are open only at night. People experiencing homelessness often spend their days in libraries, which are shutting down to adhere to social distancing measures. Many shelter providers will have to lower barriers to entering the shelter and extend hours, which will require additional staffing and resources. Some may need to relocate altogether because their shelter space does not allow for adequate social distancing measures. During the outbreak, medical respite care will be critical to help people living on the street who are frail or elderly and at greater risk of severe health consequences.

The COVID-19 pandemic is playing out against a backdrop of preexisting affordable housing and homelessness crises that disproportionately affect people of low or modest means. If we do not help people stay in their homes and address the needs of the homeless, we risk not just exacerbating the crisis but also speeding up transmission of the virus.

The good news is tools are in place that can work if Congress acts fast and with clarity.

A portable hand washing station is made available to homeless residents of San Francisco on March 18, 2020. The city has struggled in recent weeks to protect its very vulnerable homeless population. Attempts are being made to help them find housing so that they can practice social distancing. (Photo by Neal Waters/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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