For the more than half a million people nationwide without secure housing, the pandemic poses a crisis within a crisis.
Those living on the streets and in shelters remain some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19, with higher rates of underlying health conditions and less access to adequate medical care. In most cases, they are unable to heed basic public health recommendations—like social distancing and frequent handwashing. And shelters, where residents often stay in close quarters and share common spaces like bathrooms, have proven to be high-risk.
As the country faces a mounting third wave of infections, NRDC’s advocates for affordable housing are pushing for the systemic changes needed to keep people at risk of eviction in their homes, and to ensure those homes can meet residents’ basic needs.
“Housing insecurity has always been a public health issue, whether that’s been recognized or not,” says Sasha Forbes, senior program advocate in NRDC’s Healthy People & Thriving Communities program. “Now we’re seeing those health impacts magnified.”
According to a recent report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, nearly a third of all renters now spend more than a third of their income on rent, which designates them as “cost-burdened.” And for one in six, housing expenses take up more than half their income—a burden for more than 18 million households.
Not all communities have been impacted equally: A long history of discriminatory practices like redlining, persistent wage gaps, and chronic disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color have prevented these residents from accumulating the same generational wealth as white families and left them overburdened by high housing costs. Now, those vulnerable communities are the hardest hit, both by evictions and by the virus itself.
“It’s not going to come as any surprise that Black and Latino households are facing greater risks during the pandemic because they certainly faced greater risks before the pandemic,” says Dawone Robinson, NRDC’s regional director of energy affordability.
Linking Climate, Energy Efficiency, and Housing Affordability
Meanwhile, as the climate crisis accelerates, Robinson and his colleagues are working to ensure the steps that officials take to contend with the crisis don’t further fuel housing insecurity for the same vulnerable communities already disproportionately impacted by rising sea levels, extreme heat, and intensifying storms. In the coming decades, trillions of dollars will be invested in climate solutions like modernizing public transit, expanding green spaces, and building electric vehicle charging stations. This wave of transformative climate action will have significant implications for affordable housing. Often, green investment and development drive up rents and push out longtime residents—a phenomenon known as climate gentrification.
NRDC advocates with Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) to work with utilities and policymakers to bring energy efficiency to low-income housing and curb energy costs for residents. Through EEFA, NRDC also collaborates with partners in the National Housing Trust, an affordable housing organization, to defend tenants’ rights.
Almost half of the 10 million affordable multifamily units in the United States were built at least 50 years ago, noted Khalil Shahyd, a senior policy advocate with EEFA, when testifying before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in 2019. These homes are more likely to waste energy through inefficient appliances, outdated heating and cooling systems, and leaky windows and doors.
Not only are these residents less able to invest in efficiency upgrades, but they’re seeing high energy bills eat into a more substantial portion of their income. Low-income families spend, on average, more than triple what higher-income families spend on electricity, heating, and cooling, according to an analysis done by EEFA. During the pandemic and its economic fallout, those high costs may force families to make tough financial choices—say, between keeping the lights on and paying medical bills, or even staying in their homes altogether.
“There is an enormous wage gap that reflects racial disparities and discriminatory practices, so it really comes down to affordability—and that’s where our work on energy efficiency helps,” says Robinson. “If we can increase the disposable income families have, then it’s not only more likely that they’ll be able to afford to stay in their homes, but they’ll have a safer and healthier living environment as well.”
Changing the Way Cities Grow
In 2016, NRDC helped found the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) initiative, which seeks to shape policies and practices that promote public health, racial equity, and climate resiliency. Like EEFA, SPARCC is a multi-organization partnership; NRDC’s partners include the affordable housing group Enterprise Community Partners, as well as the Low Income Investment Fund. The groups work with SPARCC partners in six cities to bring together community advocates, policymakers, mission-driven developers, community business leaders, grassroots groups, and local residents to collaboratively improve the systems that shape everything from the building of new properties near transit stations to the planning of new grocery stores.
Key to their mission is the fight for safe and secure housing—which includes everything from enabling more resources for community control to advocating for policies to address climate-related displacement. Often, this means ensuring residents have a voice in local development plans.
In 2018, for example, as part of its expansion plan in the Bay Area, Google bought public land near a transit station in San Jose, California—a move that threatened to increase nearby rent. Local SPARCC partners secured seats for residents on a decision-making committee and came to meetings armed with research on the potential impacts on housing costs in the neighborhood.
Thanks to the residents’ participation—in tandem with grassroots advocacy efforts—Google committed to investing $1 billion in local housing investments, the equivalent of 5,000 affordable homes. That commitment included a $250 million fund to support affordable housing moving forward.
Averting a Crisis
Preventing resident displacement will be that much more important in the wake of COVID-19, Forbes explains. “With eviction moratoriums expiring, it’s more likely that real estate and big developers are going to use predatory acquisition practices to come in and purchase properties, leaving communities more insecure than they were before,” she says.
So far, stop-gap solutions to house and socially distance those living on the streets during the pandemic—such as offering up otherwise empty hotel rooms—have often been localized and too short-term. And while the federal relief package passed in March directed billions of dollars of aid to combatting homelessness during the crisis, local governments have reported that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has yet to make much of that funding available.
Protections for renters have likewise so far proven insufficient. At the start of the pandemic, a number of cities and states issued eviction moratoriums with varying degrees of protection—but many have already expired, and landlords have moved forward with thousands of evictions.
On the national level, Congress issued a moratorium on evictions in federally assisted properties as part of the CARES Act, but that measure expired in July. The Centers for Disease Control subsequently passed a nationwide ban on evictions for those hit financially by the pandemic, but initial reports have shown it hasn’t been enforced uniformly. At any rate, it is set to expire at the end of the year.
All of this curtailed aid poses a grave danger to the nearly one in six renters not caught up on rent payments and shouldering billions in back pay, as well as the tens of millions of people still out of work. As many as 20 million individual renters may face an eviction filing by January, according to a new analysis by the advisory firm Stout, and a disproportionate number of those renters will be Black and Latino, groups already facing the highest fatality rates from the virus itself.
NRDC is now calling on Congress to pass broader protections for renters in the next relief package.
“Without comprehensive federal direction on prohibiting evictions and providing support for financially strapped renters and building owners, state and local governments have been left to themselves,” Shahyd says. “They’re implementing a patchwork of policies determined by local capacity, political will, and ideological orientation.”
He emphasizes that a nationwide, uniform eviction moratorium must last through the duration of the crisis, when joblessness rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels. These protections must also extend to all forms of eviction, such as minor lease violations, and not simply past-due rent.
But even that won’t go far enough. Federal funding should also be directed further upstream to landlords and building owners, many of whom rely on rent money to pay their own mortgages and bills. Moreover, it must address the mounting back pay that renters will face once the moratoriums expire.
“These issues impact public health,” Robinson says, “but they’re fundamentally about human rights and human dignity.”
In Part One of our “Pandemic at Work” series, a hotel housekeeper, a fast-food worker/drugstore manager, and an elementary school janitor share their journeys through 2020—and anxieties for 2021.
NRDC senior program advocate Sasha Forbes explains what it means to be displaced by climate change and why cities must invest in long-term housing affordability—and a self-sustaining future—for their low-income communities and communities of color.
Energy efficiency and social safety net advocate Khalil Shahyd explains why supporting affordable housing is intrinsic to the climate fight.
In the midst of a pandemic, NRDC advocates are stepping up their work to prevent the risk of mass utility shutoffs, now and for the long-term.
Residents of the city’s affordable housing units don’t normally get prioritized for energy efficiency upgrades. That’s about to change.
Reducing air pollution isn’t just something to strive for. COVID-19 is illustrating why it’s a moral imperative.