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Part of the series “Viewpoints on Resilient and Equitable Responses to the Pandemic” from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use. We hope this collection of viewpoints will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this we have asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others.

Mai Nguyen is an associate professor of city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a scholar of housing and community development. Her research focuses on social and spatial equity. She will discuss why safe and stable housing is essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. She provides recommendations for what local and state governments, the private sector, and philanthropic organizations can do to keep North Carolina families in their homes.


Transcript – Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic. Mai Nguyen: Housing

As Governors and Mayors around the country are urging citizens to shelter-in-place, self-isolate and social distance to minimize the spread of COVID-19, the ONLY way that this is possible is if families have safe and stable housing.

Housing Stability is critical and foundational to protecting the health and safety of families. Keeping families in their homes may also slow the U.S. economy from falling into a deep recession during the COVID-19 global pandemic.

On any given day, over half a million people in this country are homeless. And over 20 million renter households are cost-burdened, in other words, they pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent. And, over 10 million renter households are severely cost-burdened and spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent. These households don’t have disposable income to stock up on food, supplies and medicine. If they lose their jobs, they won’t be able to pay their rent and their landlords may not be able to pay their mortgages.

As businesses begin to close down or reduce operations, layoffs and reduced salaries will not only affect renters’ ability to pay rent, but homeowners’ abilities to pay their mortgage. Massive numbers of foreclosures are on the horizon. The impact on the U.S. economy may be worse than during the 2007 housing crash that led to the Great Recession.

Here in North Carolina, homelessness, cost-burdened housing and foreclosures are also a major concern. But to make housing matters even more dire, much of eastern North Carolina still has not recovered from the destruction caused by Hurricanes Matthew, Florence and Dorian. Thousands of families were displaced from their homes, neighborhoods and support networks due to these hurricanes. These most recent disasters have taught North Carolina that the hardest hit communities are also those that are the most socially and physically vulnerable.

We need to apply what we have learned from disaster preparedness and mitigation to this current threat, the spread of COVID-19, in order to protect North Carolina families that are most vulnerable to housing instability.

Here are some real stories relayed to me by non-profit organizations that are serving families currently experiencing hardships in North Carolina:

In one family, a mother worked full-time at a fast food restaurant and her teenage daughter worked at a sit-down restaurant. They have both been laid off and will be unable to pay their rent at the end of the month.

In another family, the local business where family members worked closed down. If they are unable to pay their rent, they are at risk of losing their mobile home.

Finally, an elderly woman who currently runs a beauty shop is struggling because she has fewer customers and she can’t go to nursing homes where she typically cuts and styles hair. She will struggle to make ends meet and is uncertain whether she’ll have enough to pay her property taxes on her mortgage-free home when they are due.

What can local and state governments, the private sector and philanthropic organizations do to keep families in stable housing?

1. It is critical during this pandemic that we keep North Carolinian’s in their homes.

The state should institute a moratorium on evictions. On March 16th the North Carolina Supreme Court paused eviction and foreclosure hearings for 30 days to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. However, the state should impose a moratorium on evictions that should last for the duration of the State of Emergency and an additional 60 or more days.

The State should also institute a moratorium on foreclosures. While the current Federal government moratoria applies to FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages, there are other mortgages not covered by this, including those on personal property, such as mobile homes.

The State Government should disseminate information about existing mortgage forbearance programs for “qualified buyers” such as those from Ally Bank, Bank of America, CitiBank, Quicken Loans, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The State could set up a mortgage counseling hotline and website in order to provide technical assistance to homeowners.

2. Utilities should not be shut off for non-payment.

The state should impose a statewide moratorium of water, electric, gas and oil shutoffs during the period of the State of Emergency and beyond.

Also, late fees and interest should we waived during this period.

While some utility companies have notified clients that they will not shut off utilities for non-payment during this crisis, it is unclear how long this will last.

3. We need to provide additional support for the homeless.

Homeless shelters are in need of additional operational support and housing to shelter the homeless that is in compliance with public health recommendations for social distancing and sanitation. The state can help to identify temporary shelters for the homeless, such as motels and hotels, that are not currently in use. Providing the homeless with safe, sanitary and private shelters will mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

4. Public and assisted housing will also be negatively affected if renters are unable to pay their rents.

Local and state governments should provide operational expenses and emergency financial assistance to local public housing agencies that administer housing assistance.

If residents are unable to pay their rents during this crisis period due to lost wages or unemployment, revenues for operational expenses will be reduced and necessary operations, maintenance and repair will be deferred.

Many public housing developments, such as McDougal Terrace in Durham, North Carolina, already have deferred maintenance due to lack of sufficient funds and will fall into further disrepair if rent revenues decline even further.

5. Families will need emergency financial assistance due to lost wages.

In order for families to have stable housing, their wages also must remain stable. If individuals are asked to stay at home, such as in Mecklenberg, Wake, Orange, Chatham and Durham County, many will experience lost wages or unemployment. A large number of families will not be able to cover their rent or mortgage if they are unable to work or lose their jobs.

To assist families financially during this crisis, emergency funds can be set up by the state, non-profits and philanthropic organizations. Individuals who do not have paid sick leave, such as part-time or self-employed workers, can apply for these funds and receive them quickly.

There should be sufficient funds to allow the sick to stay in their home for up to two months to recover from illness. Offering paid sick leave will encourage workers to stay home and slow the spread of the virus.

What I’m hearing around the state is that those who are self-employed, such as taxi-drivers or hairdressers, are already suffering. Self-employed workers are not qualified to access unemployment benefits and when their businesses are shut down due to stay at home orders, they find it difficult to keep up with bills and daily expenses. By the time stay at home orders are lifted, some small business owners may no longer be able to open back up their doors.

Individuals who have lost their jobs during this crisis and for whom unemployment assistance does not sufficiently cover their rent or mortgage need direct financial assistance to stay in their homes.

When possible, the private sector should continue to pay wages during the period when employees are unable to work. Private firms that are able to absorb the costs should do so. It takes a whole community approach to this crisis and now is not the time for private sector businesses to be thinking about maximizing profits, but rather protecting families, communities and the nation from this global threat.

These are unprecedented and uncertain times and a whole community approach is demanded to minimize the public health and economic damage of the pandemic. But what is also needed is swift and decisive actions by local and state elected officials, the public sector and philanthropic organizations in order to keep families in safe and stable housing and to address this once-in-a-lifetime public health and economic crisis.

Providing safe and stable housing is essential to stopping the spread of COVID-19 and to protect North Carolina families, especially those who are the most socially and physically vulnerable.

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