No matter what you look like or what’s in your wallet, we’ve all counted on our homes to keep us safe during this pandemic. It’s long past time for Congress to recognize that our homes are the essential infrastructure that knits our communities together. We’re reminded of exactly how critical a safe and stable home is as tens of thousands of families face being put out on the street when the CDC eviction moratorium expires on July 31, just as COVID-19 infections are again surging.
In January, researchers at Duke University published a paper estimating that 40% of all COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented if our political leaders had kept eviction courts closed throughout the pandemic. If neither the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nor the governor, act to extend the moratorium and prevent the increase in transmission that happens in close quarters when families double up, we should expect more deaths. With more time to get rental assistance funds into the hands of renters and landlords, and increase our vaccination rates, the state and local parishes could prevent many of these infections and deaths. Ultimately though, we’re staring down a long-term crisis and we need Congress to include significant investments in the infrastructure and jobs bills that acknowledge how crucial a stable home is to families’ and communities’ health.
Louisiana faced a housing crisis well before the COVID-19 pandemic. In Lafayette, you needed to make $17.54 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment before the pandemic, but most hospitality and service jobs don’t even pay $15 an hour; thousands of workers still make less than half that at minimum wage. In more normal times, our three largest cities all ranked in the top 100 for jurisdictions with the highest eviction rates. That worked out to five households evicted each day in Shreveport, nine in Baton Rouge, and 16 in New Orleans.
The pandemic and our devastating 2020 hurricane season further exposed the incredible housing insecurity prevalent throughout the state. For instance, the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness & Housing served a grocery store clerk who fell behind on rent and lost her home because she and her mother both contracted COVID-19 and she was unable to work. Just one month of lost income meant that she, her mother, and her two children had to live in their car for months, with her kids trying to attend school remotely from the public library. ARCH was able to put them up in a hotel and help them apply for a new apartment, but her applications were consistently denied due to the recent eviction on her record. Even if we move past this pandemic, we cannot accept a “normal” where losing one month of work leaves a family living in their car and denied access to housing for years into the future.
If we want neighbors and communities to bounce back from COVID-19, we need real long-term investments to provide universal, stable, affordable homes for everyone. As part of the HoUSed Campaign, we’re specifically advocating to expand rental assistance to make it universally available to all households in need, invest $70 billion to preserve public housing and provide dignity to its residents, and provide $45 billion to build new homes affordable to the lowest income people through the national Housing Trust Fund.
Guaranteeing universal housing assistance and creating more affordable homes can help close the education gap because children are more likely to graduate when they live in a stable, affordable home. Housing stability is also linked to better health outcomes and more economic mobility. Congress has delayed these investments for decades, but this summer it can choose to provide robust housing assistance that will reduce poverty and help avert homelessness, institutionalization, and incarceration.
Even if you don’t need these supports now, we may all need them at some point in the future. If hurricanes and floods didn’t already teach us this lesson, the pandemic certainly reminded us that we never know when we might need help making the rent or mortgage payments. The buildings we call home are essential infrastructure and it’s long past time for members of Congress to show us they understand that.
Leigh Rachal is executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness & Housing. Cashauna Hill is executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.