Public health officials have unequivocally called for Americans to stay home to limit the spread of COVID-19. This runs into the sad reality that:
- More than 500,000 Americans on any given night experience homelessness
- Almost 17 million American households making less than $75,000 a year are severely rent-burdened, paying more than 50% of their income on rent, and housing insecure
- Six million homes are in substandard condition.
Policymakers are actively considering options to respond to COVID-19’s unfolding impacts on public health and the economy. Given the pressing need for Americans to remain safely and stably housed in the weeks and months to come, BPC recommends they consider:
- Increasing funding to meet the health and housing needs of those experiencing homelessness. People living without basic shelter are at a particularly high risk of COVID-19 infection. People experiencing homelessness have limited access to the preventative measures being recommended, like handwashing and avoiding high-touch surfaces, are more likely to have underlying chronic health conditions, and may live in congregated communities, such as encampments or shelters.
Additional resources are needed to quickly house the homeless so they do not contract or spread the virus, support prevention efforts, and prevent struggling individuals and families from becoming homeless if and when the economy worsens. BPC’s Housing Commission previously recommended making housing vouchers available to all eligible extremely low-income households (with incomes at or below 30 percent of area median income) who apply, which would effectively end homelessness.
- Creating an emergency rental assistance fund to keep people in their homes. As affected businesses are forced to lay off low-wage workers, unemployment insurance is not likely to fully replace lost income, and some workers are having trouble meeting eligibility requirements. BPC has recommended a change to the Stafford Act in response that would help cover paid sick leave needed because of COVID-19. Both unemployment insurance and paid sick leave can help families keep paying for rent and other needs.
Moreover, President Trump has directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to temporarily suspend evictions and foreclosures—a welcome move to keep families stably housed through this crisis.Yet this policy does not cover all households nationwide and low-income households are still liable for their rents and mortgages. There is still a need for additional assistance to keep low-income families sustainably housed and help them pay for essentials like utilities, food, and medicines.
The Eviction Crisis Act, previously introduced by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rob Portman (R-OH), would establish a strong federal program to bolster emergency assistance programs as well as evaluate how different interventions work in providing timely assistance to those who need it the most and have no other options. The bill would deliver on a key recommendation made by BPC’s Housing Commission—the creation of a federal program to provide short-term, targeted funding for security deposits, back rent, temporary rental assistance, and other limited forms of assistance, such as utility payments. Creating a similar program would be a critical and cost-effective investment to more stably house America’s struggling families and make sure virus mitigation efforts are successful at flattening the curve for infection.
- Encouraging HUD and FHFA to prioritize flexible payment options for borrowers. Through the housing crisis, mortgage market participants learned the hard way how to best provide struggling borrowers with flexible options to pay their mortgages and avoid foreclosure. It is critical now that families are facing new hardships that these lessons be deployed, and borrowers are provided with mortgage relief and loss mitigation options. The Federal Housing Finance Agency, working with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and HUD should ramp up efforts to counsel distressed borrowers on available options and oversee private market participants, particularly mortgage servicers. Speed is of the essence when it comes to granting loan modifications to eligible borrowers and preventing foreclosures, particularly for families facing steep income losses.