By Craig Steven
“Housing is Healthcare…Without a home or shelter, you’re lifeless. We were suffering from the lack of quality, affordable housing, decent paying jobs and healthcare before Covid19 struck. It doesn’t affect politicians and the rich.” Jala Rucker, Pittsburgh Union of Regional Residents
The Covid-19 pandemic has graphically exposed the overall economic and social inequities in our society. A glaring example of this is the mounting affordable housing crisis for poor, working and, increasingly, middle class households. The health and lives of people living in shelters and on the streets or being held in jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers are in even more danger.
Before the onset of the pandemic, as many as 140 million people in the US were poor or low income (National Poor People’s Campaign). Pittsburgh has a gap in the affordable housing supply for over 17,000 households with incomes up to 50% of the city’s median income (Pittsburgh’s 2016 Affordable Housing Task Force). This affordable housing gap is worse for African Americans, whose median income is less than half that of white households (2018 American Community Survey).
With the pandemic, a growing number of renters face rising debt, eviction and possible homelessness. Homeowners fear losing their homes to foreclosure, and the wealth they have built up through homeownership. In April alone, almost a third of US renters did not pay their rent, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.
Federal, state and local governments have not made the changes in policy or provided the funding needed to meet the challenge of securing peoples housing during the course of COVID-19. Only $9 billion of the nearly three $3 trillion dollars appropriated as of mid-April in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Acts were allocated to support US Department of Urban Development’s (HUD) subsidized and financed rental housing and homeownership programs, and for community and economic development programs for states and localities, far short of the housing needs related to the pandemic.
State and local governments and courts put in place moratoria on eviction and foreclosure legal actions. However, many of these moratoria are scheduled to end in May, including in Pennsylvania – except for HUD assisted housing program evictions and foreclosure moratoria, which the CARES Act extended to July 25. A major benefit for HUD assisted tenants (10% of Pittsburgh’s affordable housing) is they can reduce their rent immediately if they certify lost income.
The worst of the housing crisis will come if financially struggling tenants and homeowners must pay up their back rent or mortgage payment or face eviction or mortgage foreclosure when these moratoria end.
Locally, Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) provided $300,000 to a COVID-19 emergency rent and mortgage assistance program. United Way’s 2-1-1 Helpline is serving as the referral agency for this and other local housing assistance programs. The Federal CARES Act HUD funds allocated to Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and other local and state housing programs could significantly boost programs like the URA’s.
Meanwhile, local grass roots groups like Pittsburgh Mutual Aid network, the Hill District Consensus Group, and Pittsburgh Union of Regional Residents (PURR) are organizing to provide small emergency housing grants and mutual aid in accessing needed resources and benefits for families and individuals. In early April, UrbanKind Institute and the All-in-Pittsburgh Alliance, released an “Open Letter to Pittsburgh Area Landlords: Re: Mortgage Deferral and other Assistance to Landlords to Help Protect Tenants from Eviction,” co-signed by representatives of over 100 organizations and groups. Listed in the letter are ten commercial lenders “offering mortgage forbearance or deferral to help ensure that renters who have lost income due to COVID-19 can remain in their homes, both now or into the future”.
The most far reaching response to this crisis are national, state and local campaigns and legislative proposals. The Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters (PURR) launched the local CancelRent# campaign with the support of Pittsburgh United and other progressive and housing justice groups and activists. At the national level, People’s Action and Homes for All and the Right to the City Alliance launched the Homes Guarantee and Beyond Recovery campaigns,
with calls to “Cancel Rent, Cancel Mortgages, Guarantee Homes for All.”
Now there is a groundswell for sweeping state and federal legislation and action. On March 31, PA House Representatives Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Phila, and Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, announced a legislative proposal to support a rent and mortgage freeze to assist tenants and landlords and homeowners during the pandemic. On April 17, Congressional Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced the “Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act,” to “institute a nationwide cancellation of rents and home mortgage payments through the duration of the coronavirus pandemic (and) establish a relief fund for landlords and mortgage holders to cover the losses from cancelled payments.”
Clearly, it will take a mass movement and strategic political action to save people’s homes. Another world is possible, where quality, affordable housing will be a human right for all, rather than a limited commodity to be bought and sold by the highest bidder among the rich and powerful. In late May, U.S. House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, a third round of COVID-19 relief funding which would provide $100 billion in housing assistance. However, the Republican controlled Senate is dragging its feet on this much needed aid.
Craig Stevens is a member of the New People Editorial Collective.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 4. May/June, 2020. All rights reserved.