The Pulse

Will COVID-19 motivate us to recognize housing as a human right?

By: - August 17, 2020 6:00 am

Before the pandemic, North Carolina was a long way from realizing the vision of adequate, affordable housing for all, despite overwhelming public support for considering housing as a human right. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, North Carolina has a shortage of 188,866 rental homes, and 70% of extremely low-income renters spend more than 50% of their income on housing. Of the top 25 cities with the highest eviction rates in the nation, five are in North Carolina.

Since the statewide eviction moratorium expired on June 20 and the CARES Act eviction moratorium expired on July 27, property owners have proceeded to file for thousands of evictions for nonpayment, except where protections remain. Across the country, communities are preparing for a surge in evictions.

Research from the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that up to 42% of renters, or about
1.2 million people, in North Carolina are at risk of eviction in the next several months. If these estimates are realized, it would mean roughly 8,600 people would lose their homes each night between now and the end of the year.

Nationally, an estimated 30 million to 40 million people are at risk of eviction in 2020. The number of people who are displaced — people who are forced to move due to the pandemic — may be even greater. Looking solely at the number of evictions could underestimate the true severity of our current housing crisis.

The Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard gave North Carolina a score of 0.19 out of 5 for its lack of policies to protect people from eviction. The lack of state tenant protections has forced families to make impossible choices — put food on the table, pay rent or keep the lights on — knowing they cannot afford to do everything.

Data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show that nearly one in three children in North Carolina live in households that are either behind on their housing payments, without enough food to eat, or both. Children who are hungry, insufficiently housed, and/or unable to access online learning are at heightened risk of getting trapped in a cycle of lifelong health impacts, joblessness, and poverty.

Most policy responses to COVID-19 have focused on bolstering health, economic and educational supports. Housing, although critical to the health and prosperity of all people, has gotten short shift in policy decisions to date — especially at the state and federal level.

Federal legislation provided some money to help people access affordable housing directly through Community Development Block Grants and Emergency Solutions Grants and indirectly through Unemployment Insurance and the Coronavirus Relief Fund, but much more is needed. President Trump’s recent executive order claimed to provide “assistance to renters and homeowners” but neither halted evictions nor provided rental assistance, which may result in little more than an empty gesture.

North Carolina’s General Assembly has yet to provide any direct legislative support to help people meet their housing needs. Many are still hopeful that when state legislators return to Raleigh Sept. 2 that they will vote on House Bill 1200, which would dedicate $200 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds to be used for rental and utility assistance, but nothing is guaranteed.

Locally, cities like CharlotteDurham, Greensboro and Raleigh are running eviction diversion and/or mortgage and rental assistance programs, but smaller cities and counties are less equipped to finance and administer such programs effectively.

The current pandemic creates an opportunity to recognize housing as a human right because people need a home to stay at home. To live up to this ideal and ensure that affordable housing is available to everyone, state and federal action will be needed. All eyes will be on Congress and the General Assembly to provide the direct support that is needed for people to avoid eviction, homelessness, and a cascade of undue harm.

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