The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is illustrating that housing security is not only a matter of personal dignity and social justice, but indispensable for public health. The social distancing measures required to disrupt transmission of the virus will be lengthy and stringent. Educational, commercial and social activity that brings people into contact must be suspended to the greatest extent possible. Interactions between families and household units must be minimized. Current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourage gatherings of more than 10 people even in non-public venues.
New research suggests that such protocols will need to be in place nationally for months in order to lower transmission rates such that the healthcare system is not overwhelmed by demand. In New York state, the number of active cases is not expected to peak until May at the very earliest. And more intense social distancing measures may still be coming. More than seven million people in the Bay Area are now subject to a shelter-in-place order that discourages leaving one’s home for any nonessential reason. Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated that he may institute a similar order in New York in the near future.
Adherence to social distancing measures is impossible without housing security. Searching for new housing, moving, battling eviction and foreclosure attempts in housing court, and seeking services at state agencies and philanthropies are all processes that require interaction with hundreds of people and may drag on for weeks, months or years at a time. Housing insecurity often drives people to move in with family and friends, change their housing frequently, or live in units with more people than they’re meant to safely accommodate. Those with no other options may be forced to enter crowded shelter systems with no private living or sanitation facilities, or even sleep on the streets, rendering them the most vulnerable to infection by the novel coronavirus and a range of other poor health outcomes.
Moreover, because social distancing measures have shut down huge swaths of the economy, millions of people are experiencing loss of income or employment and may soon be grappling with housing insecurity as well. Experts estimate that New York City may lose as many as 500,000 jobs in the coming months, undermining residents’ ability to meet rent and mortgage obligations.
Lessons for New York
Any exogenous shock to the economy that threatened the housing security of so many New Yorkers would demand a robust response on purely ethical grounds. But in the context of a pandemic, decisive action is all the more urgent for practical reasons as well. The threat to public health that would accompany mass displacement on this scale cannot be permitted. We’re calling upon Governor Cuomo and legislative leadership to pursue the following measures:
Enact an immediate eviction and foreclosure moratorium that lasts for the duration of the crisis. New York must ensure that the eviction moratorium that began on March 16th extends until the crisis has concluded, and it must establish an equal moratorium on foreclosures.
Enact an immediate statewide rent and mortgage holiday. Any rent or mortgage payments on all tenant- and owner-occupied units due after March 1st, 2020 should be reduced to $0 for the duration of crisis. Mortgage interest accrual on owner-occupied units will be suspended for an equal period of time.
Establish a fund to replace lost rent payments, finance needed maintenance and repairs, and provide liquidity to lenders. The state must ensure that small landlords, workers and entities that depend on the regular flow of rent and mortgage payments are not unduly impacted. Small landlords who rely on rent collection for all or most of their household income should receive compensation. Large landlords or real estate firms that employ wage workers should receive enough compensation to enable them to continue making payroll. The fund should also cover maintenance costs for buildings and rental units for the duration of the holiday. The state must also ensure that cessation of mortgage payments doesn’t spark a liquidity crisis among lenders and provide funds sufficient to continue operations if necessary.
Enact a statewide rent and mortgage freeze and pass Good Cause Eviction. Once the crisis has concluded, rent and mortgage payments may return to the levels they were in February 2020 but must freeze for one year to prevent price gouging after the holiday ends. In the interim, the legislature should pass Senator Salazar’s Good Cause eviction bill to cap rent increases after the one-year freeze at the level of the local consumer price or 3 percent, whichever is lower, and guarantee all tenants the right to a lease renewal in their current units.
Pursue dramatic measures to provide housing to every homeless person in the state. New York has more than 90,000 homeless residents that require immediate shelter. The state should exercise eminent domain and take over vacant residential housing units, hotels, motels, and dormitories as needed and prepare them for tenancy. In particular, the more than 4,000 luxury apartment units build since 2013 that remain unsold in New York City should be seized and prioritized for homeless families. Shelter residents should be moved to accommodations that enable social distancing and proper hygiene, as most homeless shelters do not. Service providers must receive funding and materials sufficient to provide homeless New Yorkers who choose not to accept housing with regular access to sanitation, hygiene, and laundry options. Sweeps and closures of homeless encampments must be permanently suspended.
The threat of the novel coronavirus to housing security is unique in its speed and scale, but the truth is that many New Yorkers have been threatened for years by a barrage of more conventional crises - from rising rents and declining wages to medical debt and disability - that also leave them vulnerable eviction, foreclosure, and homelessness. We need to ensure that the protections we institute now aren’t stripped away at the first available opportunity so that landlords, developers, and investors can continue to extract exorbitant wealth from our communities. This moment presents us with an opportunity to reimagine our relationship with land, housing, the state, and each other, and develop a system that can ensure housing security for all New Yorkers, no matter what future crises we face.