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Housing Assistance Is a COVID-19 Response and Racial Justice Priority

The Brief
  • The public health and economic crisis that COVID-19 triggered has put millions of low-income households at risk of eviction and homelessness and has widened racial disparities in housing and health outcomes.
  • BPC recommends four immediate actions be taken to ensure Americans have safe, stable housing and to limit the impacts on low-income families and people of color.
  • Moving forward, this pandemic should reinforce the critical importance of housing to health and economic resilience and elevate the need to address longstanding racial disparities in housing.

The most vulnerable in our society—the 567,000 people that experience homelessness on any given night—continue to be at higher risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus given their limited ability to safely shelter in place. Government-enforced stay-at-home orders have also resulted in an unprecedented disruption to the labor market, with 44.2 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March. Despite a slight rebound in May, the unemployment rate remained historically high at 13.3% and a protracted recovery is expected. With 10.7 million households paying more than half their incomes on rent, lost jobs and crucial household wages are a primary concern as eviction moratoriums expire.

The pandemic’s financial impact has been borne disproportionately by minority households, as BPC found in a recent nationwide poll. Responses showed that Black and Hispanic households experienced higher job losses and pay-cuts, were more likely to tap into emergency savings, and more likely to miss household payments (including mortgage, credit card, utility, or rent payments) in response to COVID-19. These disproportionate impacts are critically important considering that people of color already faced higher housing cost burdens, housing insecurity, evictions, and poverty than white households. Moreover, COVID-19 kills Black Americans at twice the rate as white individuals.

Given the urgent need to stably house Americans until the public health threat of COVID-19 diminishes and limit its disproportionate impact on low-income families and people of color, BPC has developed the following policy recommendations for immediate action:

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1. Expand Emergency Rental and Other Assistance.

Even with the direct cash payments to households and expanded unemployment insurance benefits provided by the CARES Act, paying rent is a growing challenge. As eviction moratoriums end, millions will be put at risk of homelessness. Lawmakers should embrace a multifaceted approach to prevent a wave of evictions and the potentially devastating health and economic consequences that would follow by providing unemployment benefits; funding additional housing vouchers, targeted to the lowest income households; creating a new program for one-time rent and utility assistance; and offering forgivable loans or tax credits to landlords facing lost rental income. Expanding and extending moratoriums on evictions may also be warranted, particularly in COVID-19 hotspots or if coupled with funding to help housing providers cover financial obligations. Not acting quickly to prevent evictions threatens to displace a large share of low-income renters, who are disproportionately people of color.

2. Strengthen Health and Housing Partnerships to Assist Vulnerable Populations.

We have all been affected by COVID-19, yet some in our society are more vulnerable to both the virus and its devastating social and economic impacts, including low-income older adults, such as seniors in HUD-assisted and other congregate housing; those with underlying health conditions, including mental illness and substance use disorders; and those experiencing homelessness, in temporary housing, or who are housing insecure. To meet the needs of low-income older adults and other vulnerable populations, policymakers should focus on improving coordination between health and housing officials at every level of government; openly sharing data and information; screening and facilitating access to COVID-19 testing; and providing emergency federal funding for service coordinators, telemental health, meal and food delivery programs, internet service, technical assistance, personal protective equipment, cleaning, testing, and contact tracing.

3. Quickly Allocate Already Appropriated Funding.

The CARES Act authorized more than $2 trillion in federal funds to combat the COVID-19 crisis, including $150 billion for a new Coronavirus Relief Fund to states and local governments and $330 billion in emergency supplemental appropriations. Given the urgent needs of people who are experiencing homelessness and individuals on the brink of homelessness, all unallocated funds should be quickly and equitably disbursed. With the potential for new COVID-19 outbreaks in the months ahead, this money is critical to helping local communities minimize the number of people living in homeless encampments and identify space, including hotels, suitable for isolation and self-quarantine.

4. Augment Regulatory Flexibilities and Waivers.

Federal grants and loans frequently come with strings attached and administrative burdens, including mandatory reporting and documentation, cross-cutting federal regulations, and reimbursement procedures. Navigating, accessing, and deploying resources provided in the CARES Act may further burden capacity-strained local agencies, already consumed with addressing the COVID-19 public health crisis. Congress and the administration should build on provisions included in the CARES Act by further reviewing and waiving burdensome rules and matching requirements to provide housing assistance more quickly and effectively. Such waivers should also be consistent between overlapping and related federal programs.

Moving Forward

These are actionable, near-term priorities that the Trump administration and Congress should include in the next COVID-19 response package. Over the longer term, housing policies at all levels of government must be part of the important conversation about racial inequality, with a clear need for additional policy proposals that address: disproportionately high rent cost burdens, entrenched patterns of segregation and concentrated poverty, and disparities in homeownership and family wealth. In the coming months, the Bipartisan Policy Center will be working closely with former federal housing officials and experts—including Henry Cisneros, former HUD secretary; Pamela Hughes Patenaude, former HUD deputy secretary; Orlando Cabrera, former HUD assistant secretary for public and Indian housing; and Erika Poethig, former HUD acting assistant secretary for policy, development, and research—to provide analyses and input on these and other pressing housing policy priorities.

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