By Rebecca Johnson, Katie Hannon Michel, Greg Miao, Tina Yuen, & Sabrina Adler
COVID-19 has urgently demonstrated that everyone needs to live in safe and healthy communities. The people most affected by COVID-19 are communities of color, people with low income, immigrants, and other underserved groups. These groups are most vulnerable because of existing laws and policies that affect the fundamental drivers of health inequities. Communities and local governments that take steps to ensure health, safety, housing, food, and economic stability for all of their residents will be helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and laying the groundwork for health equity and prosperity for future generations.
To help communities and local governments strengthen their response to COVID-19 and advance health equity, we’re publishing a blog series about policies that they can enact right away. This post is the third in the series.
Over the last several weeks, leaders in communities across the United States have taken steps to protect the health and financial security of their residents by stopping evictions, improving tenant protections, and halting utility shutoffs. Many of these protections are set to expire soon, especially given that some states are allowing businesses to re-open. For communities that have adopted these measures, it’s important to extend and strengthen these protections for residents because it will be many months (or longer) before economic recovery occurs. For communities that haven’t yet adopted such measures, it’s not too late to support health and long-term economic recovery and sustainability for all of their residents by adopting these protections now. The remainder of this blog post provides policy strategies that localities have adopted (or could adopt, depending on their state laws) to support housing stability.
Adopt (or Update) Eviction Moratoriums & Expand Tenant Protections
Providing safe, stable, affordable housing for all has never been more important. Communities that take steps to protect tenants and people without permanent housing can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and ensure better physical and mental health for their residents. However, the economic impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbating previously existing difficulties caused by outdated, harmful housing laws and policies. These combined ills force many Americans — especially people with low income or those who live in communities of color — to make difficult choices between paying rent or paying for other necessities like food and medical care. Almost 1 in 3 people were unable to pay their rent in April, whereas in March, the ratio was less than 1 in 5.
The good news is that local governments across the country are taking steps to provide emergency housing protections during this public health crisis. Common approaches include expanding shelter capacity for people without permanent housing; halting police enforcement of evictions; adopting a jurisdiction-wide moratorium on all evictions and foreclosures; and stopping the termination of renters who use Section 8 vouchers. Many of these policies will need to be extended in the coming days and weeks as the original short-term provisions expire. As part of these efforts, local decisionmakers should consider housing protections that respond directly to COVID-19 and should also enact long-term protections to keep people in their homes. Here are some possible policies:
- Extend moratoriums past the immediate crisis, to give people time to find work after the risk of COVID-19 subsides
- Pause all rent increases during the pandemic and recovery periods
- Create extended payment plans with no late fees so that people can repay rent after the moratorium on evictions ends
- Establish emergency rental assistance programs for tenants (or enhance existing ones), to help defray rent costs
- Establish a centralized process through which people can access benefits and services like low-income housing assistance or legal counsel on how to navigate their housing options
- Cover other emergencies that may arise (eg, natural disasters, loss of employment, or medical emergencies) with the same housing protections that were made necessary by COVID-19 (eg, eviction protections, rent stabilization)
- Identify additional housing options for people who are unhoused — for example, create additional shelters or use existing hotel rooms
- Ensure that all renters are afforded these protections equitably
For more resources on eviction policies, check out the Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, the National League of Cities’ COVID-19: Local Action Tracker, Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle, the National Housing Law Project, and ChangeLab Solutions’ resources on housing.
Ensure Access to Water, Heat, & Power
Having adequate housing doesn’t mean just having a roof over one’s head; it also means having safe and healthy housing with running water, heat, and power. Basic utilities enable everyone to stay healthy and abide by public health guidelines while sheltering at home. Access to water enables frequent handwashing, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified as a key step to slowing the spread of COVID-19. Sufficient heating is always essential to protect against health risks like hypothermia and dangerous cooling of the body that could further endanger patients with COVID-19. And everyone needs power to keep the lights on and engage in everyday activities, including cooking, storing food, and working or studying from home (for those who can).
Unfortunately, in many regions, water utilities have been shut off for thousands of residents due to nonpayment of bills — even before this health crisis began. In 2018, the US Energy Information Administration reported that nearly one-third of US households struggled to pay their energy bills and that 1 in 5 households had to make trade-offs between food, medicine, and other basic necessities in order to keep up with utility payments. Any loss of income during the COVID-19 pandemic and during the recovery period will worsen these ongoing challenges.
Localities throughout the country are taking steps to ensure access to basic utilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In cities where utilities are municipally owned — like Austin, Texas; Tupelo, Mississippi; and Burlington, Vermont — localities have the authority to temporarily suspend new disconnections due to nonpayment and can halt the imposition of late fees or penalties for delinquent payments. Indeed, to date, more than 148 million people in the United States are protected from water shutoffs as a result of temporary state and local moratoriums. Tallahassee, Florida, has implemented a Utility Relief Program that allows municipal utility customers who are facing financial hardship to defer payments for water, sewer service, electricity, and natural gas for up to 6 months. Cities can also restore municipal water service or other utilities to residents who were already experiencing disconnections due to nonpayment, as Detroit and Cleveland have done.
For more information on how localities can ensure their residents’ continued access to water, heat, and power during the COVID-19 pandemic, refer to the Local Progress clearinghouse that tracks local responses on housing, utilities, and homelessness. For information on what actions private, investor-owned utilities are taking to address the pandemic, visit the Energy and Policy Institute’s website. Be sure to find out whether the policies you are considering are permitted under your state's laws.
Please check out the next installment in this series, which discusses policy responses related to paid leave protections.