Housing Justice: After a Year of Covid, Where Are We Now?

A recent statistic shows that New York State renters owe more than $1 billion in unpaid rent. It’s no secret that 2020 was a difficult year for monthly rent payments, with rising unemployment and medical costs associated with it. It’s also no secret that housing continues to be a dire issue in the United States today. Housing inequalities have not magically disappeared this year. Despite New York State’s moratorium protecting tenants from eviction (extended until May 1, 2021), the moratorium itself has created many levels of uncertainty. These deadlines and extensions have been changed before, creating a level of anxiety surrounding when rent will be due. This goes beyond affecting only New York State residents, and represents a pressing concern for tenants throughout the country. Speaking legally, the moratorium pauses evictions to allow tenants extra time to gather rent, and forces landlords to somewhat follow these guidelines. However, how does this change the reality of Covid-19’s impact? It doesn’t. Wage earners are still left unemployed, rent will still be an issue once the moratorium lifts, and the rights of tenants are simply not being protected. This ongoing problem is an infringement on tenants’ rights which deserve to be protected by their own government. Despite the worsening economic situations of many households, no solutions have been proposed to alleviate the rental burden felt by many tenants across the state. Because of these damaging conditions, many organizations have taken the initiatives needed to bring communities together and advocate for tenant’s rights for affordable and equal housing. 

There is no legal definition for affordable housing on the federal, state, or local level. Without this definition ingrained within modern governments and regulations, how can politicians be expected to guarantee what does not exist? Doesn’t this essentially remove housing justice’s value as a valid concept from the government’s perspective? The UCCHJ (Ulster County Coalition for Housing Justice) has since endorsed their own definition of affordable housing to “25% of a low-income resident’s income.” However, this legal definition has not been recognized in many states, which reinforces the notion that housing is not considered a human right. And if affordable housing is not being considered as a basic human right, the path towards recovery for tenants who are struggling to pay rent will not be easily achieved. 

The fight for minimum wage to be changed to $15 an hour is a key example that demonstrates the inaccessibility for tenants to afford rent. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Full-time is considered to be 30 hours a week, or 130 a month, which amounts to only $942.5 per month. Millions of families across the country are expected to live from this wage and pay for rent, education, insurance, and other utilities. How are tenants expected to pay rent during a pandemic when the minimum wage is at $7.25? Granted, this can vary from state to state, but this is the reality for many families. Without a steady and fair income, communities simply cannot afford to pay rent. The pandemic has made this difficulty into an impossibility, and the only “solution” New York State has conjured thus far is the moratorium. Which, again, means nothing if the rent keeps piling up each month. 

Regardless of the moratorium being speculated as a solution, it’s not enough to simply keep renewing it. The government must be willing to fully compensate for the loss of jobs and homes that have burdened millions of Americans. Housing is unequal, but so are economic prospects that essentially impact the state of housing. These economic disparities have been further increased by the pandemic, and the government has chosen to push forward as though the country is not in a crisis. Medical insurance, for one, isn’t accessible to those who are unemployed, forcing residents into worsened situations. Not everyone has the same accessibility to safety and security, and the disparities between various communities has only been enhanced by the devastating impacts of the pandemic. Housing justice is but one of the many troubles that have arisen from Covid, and nothing will change if those with power continue to ignore these worsening situations. 

The government’s lack of true support has spiraled these numbers out of control, showing that the government is not protecting its citizens. Additionally, the Covid-19 package that was administered to New York State is only attainable through certain criteria. In short, not all tenants in need of financial help are eligible to receive funds. Around December 2020, New York was sitting on $60 million in rental relief. Consequently, most funds went to waste, and were not allocated properly to those who truly needed them. Today, New York State lawmakers are trying to pass a new bill, which “will include the $1.3 billion allocated to New York for rent relief in the Trump Administration’s December stimulus package” and Biden’s $1.5 billion aid. If this rent relief program passes, those who are eligible will receive “up to one year of rent arrears.” Eligibility includes households earning below 80% median income for that particular area, and will not take immigration status into consideration. This bill is being received with mixed feelings. Many housing justice organizations believe that this is still not enough, and that the bill will not provide tenants with the security that they need. Even tenants themselves have complained that the application process is “lacking transparency” and “complicated.” So how much help is this really? There are no direct funds being provided to renters from the government and the stimulus checks spread throughout communities in need are not enough to provide stability. If the means to access the rent relief funds are too difficult, then what is the point in their existence? Through these patterns and the lack of assistance being provided to in-need tenants, it’s clear that only those involved in non-profits and independent organizations realize the situation and are lending a helping hand to their community.

Many organizations are coming together to show their solidarity and support with the public. UCCHJ, for example, has begun gathering signatures for a petition to “protect and prevent tenants and homeowners from evictions and foreclosures due to economic hardships caused by Covid-19.” This petition aims to cancel rent and mortgage payments for tenants and small businesses, and is seeking to guarantee affordable housing for at least 25% of all housing stock (Click here for the petition, and here for the other demands). This work is being done with the understanding that moratoriums only push the problem away, and don’t solve it entirely. The coalition is also trying to use a grant of $200,000 for tiny homes within Kingston, but needs city approval in order to begin this process (If interested, click here for instructions on how to get involved). 

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