Constance Woodson Worked Hard All Her Life. How Did She End Up Homeless During a Pandemic?

A few days after her 60th birthday, Constance Woodson took in the early-June sun on a bench in New York City’s Madison Square Park. Masked, except when she sipped her coffee, she reflected on her luck. The good news was that, in the midst of a pandemic, she had secured a job, as a contact tracer. She could do it from her home, with a company-issued laptop and headset. The bad news was that her current home was a room in a hotel–provided by New York City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS)–where, she was informed, laptops were not permitted and wi-fi was not provided. 

Today’s Read: Minimum Wage Workers Cannot Afford Rent in Any U.S. State

Even before the coronavirus pandemic led to mass unemployment and economic uncertainty, many renters were living paycheck-to-paycheck as they struggled to afford rising rents. The need for comprehensive Federal solutions to the affordable housing crisis has been dire for years: Now, with eviction moratoria and enhanced unemployment benefits expiring and countless renters at risk of losing their homes during the growing pandemic, the issue has taken on new urgency.

This week, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) released its annual Out of Reach report, which highlights the ever-widening chasm between incomes and rents throughout the country. The 2020 report found that full-time minimum wage workers cannot afford a two-bedroom rental anywhere in the nation and cannot afford a one-bedroom rental in 95 percent of U.S. counties.

NLIHC calculated that, compared with all states, New York State has the fifth-highest housing wage: the hourly wage a full-time worker must earn to rent a modest home without spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. As in past years, the affordability issues are particularly severe in the New York City region, where the 2020 Fair Market Rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,714, and for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,951. This means that a renter needs to make $32.96 per hour to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment in New York City, or $37.52 per hour for a two-bedroom apartment – in either case, more than twice the $15 hourly minimum wage. Furthermore, due to persistent structural inequities and systemic racism, people of color face the highest risk of eviction.

With unsustainable rent burdens even prior to the pandemic, people who have lost their jobs or seen their incomes fall further in the past few months are now facing the very real threat of eviction and possible homelessness unless Congress takes swift action. In recent months, the House of Representatives has passed two bills that include $100 billion in emergency rent assistance, among other housing and homelessness funds: the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (the HEROES Act) and the Emergency Housing Protections and Relief Act of 2020. The Senate must immediately pass these desperately needed bills to keep renters stably housed and prevent a potential tidal wave of evictions. Contact your representatives here to urge them to immediately enact these critical housing investments and protections, and spread the word on social media using #RentReliefNow.

Going forward, all levels of government must recommit to investing in affordable housing to prevent and reduce homelessness. The pandemic has shown that the status quo, in which hundreds of thousands of people across the country are homeless and countless others are struggling to pay rent each month, is completely unacceptable.

Alicia Adamczyk wrote about the NLIHC report for CNBC:

There was a housing affordability crisis even before the pandemic hit and tens of millions lost their jobs. Last year, the NLIHC’s report also found that a two-bedroom was not affordable anywhere in the country, putting the 2019 housing wage at $22.96 for a two-bedroom rental and $18.65 for a one-bedroom.

But the findings are especially relevant now. Coronavirus-related job losses hit the hospitality and service industries particularly hard, and renters make up a disproportionate share of those work forces, according to the Urban Institute. Additionally, it is not likely that the U.S. will make the “V-shaped” recovery economists are hoping for, as states are re-closing large parts of their economies as virus cases spike across the country.

With all of that as the backdrop, housing experts forecast a coming housing “apocalypse” at the end of July: Eviction bans put in place at the start of the pandemic are lifting, just as enhanced unemployment benefits expire. That could lead millions of households to face eviction and potentially homelessness as they choose between covering rent and basics like food and medicine. An estimated 32% of households — almost one-third — missed their housing payments at the beginning of this month.

“Pre-existing structural injustices,” like limited housing options, mean people of color already made up a disproportionate share of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. before the pandemic, the report says. Black Americans comprised 40% of people experiencing homelessness in 2019, even though they are just 13% of the population, according to the report. Hispanic and Latino people were 18% of the population and 22% of those experiencing homelessness.

NLIHC’s report calls for “significant investments” in affordable rental housing and emergency rental assistance “to keep low-income renters stably housed during and after the pandemic.”

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