Guest Column: COVID-19 Exposed Failures in Affordable Housing
NEW ORLEANS – A few weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control moved to protect our nation’s health by calling for a pause on most COVID-19-related evictions through the end of the year. This was sorely needed because supplemental federal unemployment benefits have expired and Congress has not renewed this critical assistance at any level.
In New Orleans and nationwide, struggling families need more help. Especially those from the service and hospitality sector who lost their jobs. The Greater New Orleans Foundation and our partners have been at the forefront, releasing nearly $3M in grants to address health, housing, and food insecurity and to support small businesses and retrain those who have lost jobs. GNOF’s Louisiana Service and Hospitality Family Assistance Program has helped over 1500 families whose annual incomes averaged less than $27,000 before the pandemic make ends meet with $1,000 grants.
But the pandemic has made abundantly clear what’s been true all along–housing is human right, a public health issue, and it is our collective responsibility. Now, we must take action to ensure that our community is safe and housed, even as the CDC’s moratorium ends at the close of December.
This is an urgent matter. When families double-up in apartments or shelters push their capacity, the virus spreads. Our pre-existing housing crisis has made our COVID-19 crisis worse. Before the pandemic began, many families in Greater New Orleans faced rents that went far beyond the 30% of income experts recommend to set aside for housing. People that saved for rent by skipping medications or treatment for conditions like high-blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma were suddenly at especially high risk of death. They had less, if anything, set aside for emergencies if they lost their job when businesses shuttered. If they had just barely made rent before, now they were at risk of eviction. And indeed, this summer, when federal and state eviction protections ceased, hundreds of New Orleanians suddenly faced potential homelessness.
The CDC’s protections are only a stopgap measure, and we must work swiftly and strategically before they end. We must advocate, on a federal level, for funding to make this work. Federal funds can be used to pay rent for those that cannot. Support can also come in the form of stimulus checks or increased unemployment benefits. This not only helps renters avoid an eventual mountain of back pay, but allows landlords to earn what they need to keep up their properties and sustain their families, too.
On a state level, the Louisiana Housing Corporation needs to expedite the release of CARES Act funds allocated for New Orleans renters to provide immediate rental relief and our legislators should work with advocates to create thoughtful policies that protect our people and ultimately, our economy. For example, we can legislate a grace period for late rent for those that have lost their jobs. People need time to find employment where the service and hospitality industries have taken a big hit and take-home pay is often too little to sustain a family. Once folks have jobs, they will need a long time to earn enough to pay what they owe. Given the burden this may place on landlords, the city and state should create financing programs or tax incentives for those that choose to waive or reduce rent during this time. For those members of our community that already lost their homes during the pandemic, we can seal the eviction records so that they are not prevented from renting property going forward. This will reduce the chance of homelessness down the line.
Private organizations, nonprofits and philanthropists have a role as well. Organizations we support like Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center need our help. These groups advocate not just for renters at risk of eviction, but also homeowners at risk of foreclosure. If we believe that homeownership is a key component of financial and community stability, we need to preserve it in times of turbulence. Rental assistance funds, like the Families 4 Families Fund, can step in with financial support for those in need. At GNOF, we have directed $100,000 on behalf of our generous philanthropic partners to F4F, which has the goal of protecting 4,000 families from eviction with rental assistance for a full year.
Now is the time to take action, but frankly, it should not have come to this. We should have done more to create stable housing for people long ago. If we had, COVID-19 might not have flared so much in our city. Folks might not have crowded in with relatives. Homelessness shelters and support organizations might have not have been so overwhelmed. It might not have been so hard for our people to keep six feet apart. Despite the phenomenal work and great dedication of many, we did not have the full investment of our community. Today, we can change that. We can look at our neighbors and know that Greater New Orleans is greater when all of us have what they need. We can start with the basics: the foundation for good health and a roof over all of our heads.
By Isabel Barrios, Greater New Orleans Foundation