Health and housing are inextricably linked (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
The nationwide protests over the past few months are a response to the tragic murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers -- and to the longstanding racial injustices plaguing our nation. Among these systemic crises is housing inequity and its impact on health.
Millions of people nationwide lack stable housing due to extremely high rent, domestic issues such as living with an abuser, or various other causes. In New York specifically, hundreds of thousands of low-income residents fall into this category, with a disproportionate number of these people being Black and Latino. In this time of COVID-19 when stable housing is more critical than ever, people of color are overwhelmingly suffering from the negative health impacts of not having a home.
We must now firmly address – and federally fund -- stable housing, as a crucial pillar of public health and racial justice. New York offers a clear example of why this is so important.
For the past 15 years, rent costs in New York have spiked upwards, eating up more and more of residents’ income. With millions of New Yorkers unemployed during the pandemic and the state eviction moratorium set to end in August, many New Yorkers face an imminent risk of losing their homes. Without comprehensive federal aid for state and local governments to preserve housing stability, we also risk eliminating much of the hard-won progress New York has made in the fight against COVID-19.
Housing & Health Links
Housing has always been foundational to human survival. It is at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, along with food, water, and warmth. Without a home, it’s that much harder to secure a quality education, job opportunities, and maintain good health. Being homeless undermines health through many pathways, including the increase in stress, exposure to the elements and other noxious agents, and need to spend time searching for shelter. In addition to those stressors, during this pandemic, homeless people are simply unable to “shelter in place” or work or learn “from home,” further jeopardizing their safety.
While many Americans and New Yorkers specifically were already homeless prior to the pandemic, more now face the threat of homelessness once eviction moratoria end. Those at risk, especially people who are Black and Latino, report great fear for their wellbeing. Black and Latino people already account for a disproportionately high number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., and the risk for contracting the virus escalates when people are forced to live on the streets, doubled up with other tenants, or in the overcrowded shelter systems.
The lack of housing options creates other crises. Amid stay-at-home orders, residents with abusive partners may face a higher risk of assault yet be unable to flee for safety. Cities across the country, including New York, have reported a recent increase in domestic violence cases, with those on the front lines reporting that abusers may intentionally expose their victims to the virus or threaten to kick them out if they test positive. To these residents, being quarantined with an abuser means inescapable trauma, adding to the stress and fear associated with the virus itself.
How can we tackle these systemic injustices? Rental assistance is the first key solution, along with programs to connect renters in need with these resources. With New York’s state and city governments facing dire budget shortfalls, federal funding for rental assistance is urgently needed.
We urge Congress to direct $100 billion in supplemental appropriations to support substantial rental assistance, and also provide flexible funds to cover additional costs to housing providers including hazard pay for employees, extra cleanings, personal protective equipment, and more.
New York State has recently launched a rental assistance program using federal CARES Act funds to provide a one-time payment for residents with the greatest need, but far more aid is required to meet the growing needs of New Yorkers now. The federal government must expand aid to New York and other hard-hit states so that programs like these can be expanded and reach more people adversely impacted by the pandemic. This will help low-income people in New York and across America stay safe in their homes – and strengthen our continued collective efforts to mitigate COVID-19.
New York State recently passed the Emergency Rent Relief Act, which will direct $100 million from the federal CARES Act to be used towards rental assistance. We urge New York City and State to continue to prioritize funds they have already received through the CARES Act to support immediate rental assistance and other measures to keep New Yorkers safely housed.
Third, we need to ensure that federal aid for unemployed people continues throughout this prolonged shutdown period. The extra money to date has prevented many families from falling into poverty, enabling them to pay rent through this time of mass unemployment.
These critical measures are urgently needed to begin to combat the disastrous health disparities experienced by Black and Latino people. It’s also necessary to maintain the progress states like New York have made in slowing the infection rates of a disease that has taken an estimated 154,000 lives in America so far. We cannot continue to allow the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color. We must proactively support efforts to provide stable housing for people most likely to experience health and housing inequities, through rental assistance, continued unemployment support, and other protective measures. As our nation acknowledges deeply rooted racial inequities, these meaningful measures to protect people who are housing insecure now are a crucial step towards true racial and economic justice.
Judi Kende is vice president and New York market leader of Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit housing organization. Dr. Mindy Fullilove is a social psychiatrist and professor of urban policy and health at The New School.