Housing Inequality in the Time of Covid

The impact of Covid on the United States has been incredibly devastating. Its effects have not only brought new problems to the surface, but they also have increased existing issues in exponential proportions. One of these existing issues is that of Housing Inequality, which has disproportionately impacted many Americans since the early 1900s. Some of the most targeted groups in regards to housing discrimination include Black and Latinx Americans, as well as low-income families. Due to Covid-19, housing injustice for tenants has increased drastically over the last couple of months. 

The negative effects of housing injustice can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, when the rampant increase of the workforce created slums for those within the working class.  Although poverty existed in a pre-industrial United States, the increase of jobs made cheap housing a necessity. Many employers exploited their workers by providing unsanitary housing that eventually became ‘slums.’ Though the Revolution increased technological advances and provided jobs for families, it also created gaps between those who could afford housing and those who could not. 

Fast forward to 1968, the Fair Housing Act “prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex.” During the era of segregation in United States, minority groups (specifically Black Americans) faced large amounts of housing discrimination even after other anti-discriminatory acts were passed. Despite this act being put into place, discrimination-based housing continued being an issue that predominantly followed Black Americans for years to come. Between the years of 1950 and 1980, white Americans relocated into the suburbs and took many employment opportunities away from minority groups. As ghettos and slums became more prominent, the 1988 Fair House Amendments Act focused on removing discrimination against people with disabilities or familial statuses. It’s no secret that the United States was built upon the oppression of Black Americans, and housing injustice is a great reflection of that. Even when acts prohibiting the discrimination of minority groups within housing are enacted, landlords and employers find their way around them. The world that we live in today is not privy to these discriminatory acts. Whether it be towards people of color, homeless folks, or low income families, the United States severely lacks any kind of actual reassurance that housing will be fair and affordable for those who need it. 

Homeless shelters, for example, are a crude reminder that true help is rarely given to communities in need. At a first glance, these shelters are a way to give a safe home to those who are homeless. However, taking a closer look into these shelters gives way to a saddening reality. These shelters are often large buildings where people are waitlisted for a bed. Breeding grounds for sexual abuse, these shelters are often seen as the equivalent (if not worse) of living on the street. David Pirtle, an advocate for mental illness who used to be homeless, said that “there are a lot of big warehouses that are just places where [they] stick people at night and [they] really don’t have any regard for how they live there.” There aren’t precautions in place to protect those residing within these shelters. Essentially, homeless people would rather live on the streets than within the government-provided shelters.This only proves that the United States fails you unless you’re white and rich. Even the help that is given to homeless people is not really help at all. It’s a facade to make the government look like they’re trying to help. Most of the homeless shelters that are offered by the government are merely warehouses where no one tends to the conditions of mental health of those residing within them. Some (generally non-govt shelters) are in better condition, but waitlists to live in one still create problems. In reality, the majority of shelters are merely producing higher levels of homelessness. These issues of an imbalance of equality have only been enhanced within poor communities of color due to Covid. 

At a recent community town hall, Joe Czajka (Sr. VP for Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress) detailed how the housing burden has been felt by Hudson Valley residents during the Covid pandemic. He presents multiple data analyses that explain how, in comparison to 2019, this year’s housing crisis has impacted many New Yorkers. Real estate prices last year in Dutchess were reported at a median of $305,000. This year, that price has shot upwards 14.4%, now pricing at around $349,000. Many experts believe that the rise in housing prices is the result of people relocating to rural areas due to “minimize the risk of contagion and take advantage of remote work policies during the crisis.” This example can be seen in New York City, where people have moved upstate in order to avoid the virus while taking advantage of low interest rates. Covid has also led to mass increases in unemployment of people within New York (Ex: New York City itself had a rate of 3.5% unemployment in 2019. In 2020, this number has now jumped to 13.9%). 

You can see the rest of the video detailing the impact of Covid on Housing here.

(Above: Median Sale Prices of homes within different counties) 

Despite Cuomo’s extension of the Covid Moratorium, which prevents landlords from evicting tenants if they “are suffering financial hardship,” the threat of eviction still exists. There have been cases where judges refuse to acknowledge the signed declarations for the Moratorium, or landlords that simply disregard the issued declaration. On paper, it seems like a solution to everyone’s problems. But the reality of the Moratorium is much different. People are still expected to pay rent eventually, and this is just not possible for many families that are unemployed. In these cases, local groups and aid coalitions have come together in order to help issue funds for individuals that are having a hard time in paying rent.

One of these groups is known as Hudson Catskill Housing Coalition (HCHC). This organization is described as a “Black-led initiative that empowers public housing” and, consequently, fights for housing justice. Nora Grace Flood, a Bard senior who is interning with the coalition, stated that most leaders within HCHC want to “make sure that they’re responding to the desires and needs of tenants and [those with a] low income.” The leaders of the coalition, most of which have been raised in the Hudson / Catskill area, want to guarantee that no one is being taken advantage of by landlords. One of these leaders is Quintin Cross, Senior Policy Advisor to HCHC. He describes the work done by the organization as “giving [people] the tools that they need to be successful and raise their voices.” Cross emphasizes the severity of Housing Injustice, and how folks are simply “trying to fight for their survival.” As a result of this crisis, HCHC has been working within the community in order “[amplify] their voices.” 

 Hudson Catskill Housing Coalition has been going door-to-door giving out groceries and sanitizing equipment, as well as pamphlets with helpful information on any updated news concerning housing. Additionally, HCHC has been providing individuals with information specifically regarding their housing rights. Cross also mentions that the coalition has been providing legal aid to people who are called to court, and creating a “bridge between community and legal aid,” for no charges. The coalition does this to provide support, but also to “[hold] people in power accountable.” The state of New York, in contrast, has not been protecting the public’s best interest, and only signed the moratorium, expecting this to be the final solution. If you are interested in donating to any of the funds being organized by HCHC, click the link here for their website, or contact them at 518-291-9415. 

The 2020 Election is another indicator that housing injustice stifles the success of low income people of color. Kwame Holmes (Director, Kingston Housing Lab; Faculty Advisor, Bard Prison Initiative; Scholar-in-Residence, Human Rights Program) discussed the concepts of “Chocolate Cities” as well as “White Flight” in the context of housing and the election. White flight occurs when a “fear or anticipation of racial intermixture” is created; As a result, white people reside in what we call the suburbs of America. Today, the suburbs are, for the most part, white neighborhoods that are seemingly void of crime and have “high property value.” In terms of the election, both Biden and Trump relied on their black voters, but in different ways. Trump largely relied on the vote of white suburban women by using the phrase, “I saved your suburbs.” Biden, on the other hand, just relied on black voters without laying the groundwork for a plan in their favor. 

The issue of Housing Justice is nothing new, but the past few months have been detrimental for people that have lost their jobs, or receive a low income. Access to affordable housing has been made nearly impossible, and the election displays the privilege that is expected of voters. Not everyone owns property, not everyone stays in the same place throughout the voting period, and not everyone’s lives revolve around the electoral college. This has heavily impacted low income tenants of color, and the problem is being ignored by those with power. However, coalitions such as HCHC are pushing forward to aid those who are struggling. They are giving power to those who truly need it, and are doing the work that our government is so diligently ignoring because they truly care about our community members. 

If you are interested in being a part of HCHC’s movement for housing justice, contact them here. 

Click here to aid Ulster County Coalition for Housing Justice. 

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