Pandemic worsens the housing crisis


When the coronavirus contagion finally eases up and fewer people are coming down with COVID-19, some of the deepest and longest-lasting scars are likely to be left in the nation’s already troubled housing sector.

Those who have lost jobs or have seen their pay cut — which is now half of American households — may not be in immediate jeopardy of losing their homes. Eviction moratoriums in most states, although not Ohio, will keep roofs over heads during the height of the health crisis.

But every month that this pandemic drags on, more and more tenants are falling behind in their rent. That in turn squeezes the ability of landlords to meet obligations for mortgages, taxes and to pay staff to maintain property so their tenants can safely shelter in place.

It’s no wonder the drum beat is growing for Congress to include housing relief in the fourth and next coronavirus stimulus package that is expected to be hammered out in coming weeks.

In a new NPR/PBS NewHour/Marist poll released at the end of April, half of the respondents said someone in their households had lost a job or saw their hours reduced. That was a hike of 178% from the month before, when just 18% of Americans reported they had lost jobs or income due to the virus and resulting workplace shutdowns.

No question those at the lower end of the economy are in even more dire straits. The Marist poll found workforce impacts were worse in nonwhite households, with 60% reporting job and pay losses compared to 43% of white households.

A majority of less-educated, younger and poorer Americans are among those suffering the greatest economic harm, with the Marist poll revealing 55% of those without a college degree, under age 45 and making less than $50,000 reported job and pay cuts.

In other words, those least prepared to weather the storm are most likely to be battered by its after-effects.

As Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll, said, “No one has really gone untouched. However, we certainly see from the data as well that a lack of a strong safety net, especially for many middle-class or working-class Americans, it has some really, really big holes in it.”

Now layered over that data, consider a report that the Ohio Poverty Law Center also released in late April. It found that 34% of all Ohio households are in rented property, with many presumably finding it difficult to keep paying their rent in this economic freefall.

Even when the economy was booming for most of us, Franklin County was already seeing 17,000 eviction cases a year. On some days, Franklin County Municipal Court handled as many as 200 eviction cases, said Administrative Judge Ted Barrows. And studies have shown a gap of 54,000 affordable housing units needed in central Ohio alone, leaving poor families doubled or tripled up as they try to shelter in place.

Under guidance from Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor allowing courts to delay certain cases, most urban counties have temporarily suspended eviction hearings.

Still, Ohio is one of six states that have not enacted a uniform policy on evictions during the coronavirus emergency, earning it a score of just 0.58 out of a possible 5 points on a “COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard” created by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

Some Ohio lawmakers would like to change that. House Bill 562, introduced March 23 by Democratic Reps. David Leland of Columbus and Jeffrey Crossman of Parma, was referred to the Civil Justice Committee on Tuesday. It would prohibit foreclosures and evictions throughout Ohio’s state of emergency for the pandemic.

But such legislation is barely a Band-Aid, a temporary truce to keep at-risk families from becoming homeless during the worst of the pandemic. The real need is to help renters pay what they owe rather than pushing their mounting debt further into the future with little hope of climbing out of the hole into which they are sinking deeper each month.

But as Gov. DeWine has called for $774 million in cuts to state spending, there appears to be no avenue for rent relief leading from the Statehouse.

For that kind of resolution, housing advocates are putting their hope in Congress, where they are pushing to include a $100 billion rental assistance program in the next coronavirus stimulus package.

It is a tall order but not the biggest ask when compared to proposals to extend more stimulus payments to most Americans — something that President Donald Trump has indicated he would like to see — as well as $500 billion the nation’s governors are seeking to help states and local government deal with costs they are incurring due to the pandemic.

Financial relief can’t fix every problem created by the virus crisis. But for those in serious danger of becoming homeless, it can go a long way toward helping them hold their families together.

As explained by Steve Gladman, president of the Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County, “Eviction moratoriums in many jurisdictions hit the pause button on displacing tenants, but the only thing that really paused was the tenants’ income. Rent deferment is not rent forgiveness, and once the moratorium is lifted, tenants will be unable to pay the large ballooning sum of money owed.”

A defining difference with this state of emergency, compared to crises created by tornados, floods and other natural disasters, is that every community is fighting to survive. There are no others who can rush to our aid the way those with generous hearts tend to do when emergencies are localized and those not impacted have resources to share.

As Congress prepares to craft what some say could be its final coronavirus stimulus plan, we urge lawmakers to help those who will lose their homes without federal assistance.

— The Columbus Dispatch; Online: https://bit.ly/3bmCdD5