Coronavirus Forces Politicians to Address Housing Affordability and Homelessness Crises

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For years, activists and experts have been saying, repeatedly, that housing is not only a human right, but also a serious public health issue. That people need stable, affordable housing to maintain good health — and the housing affordability and homelessness crises, in California and elsewhere, threaten the public’s health. With the coronavirus pandemic, those cold, hard facts have only become more obvious — and more relevant.

“It’s never been as clear as it is right now that housing is healthcare and our collective health depends on our ability to stay at home,” National Low Income Housing Coalition President Diane Yentel told Mother Jones recently. “If we don’t have homes to stay in we put people at an immediate and extreme risk, and we risk the health of entire communities. As long as there are people who don’t have homes to isolate in, we are not truly containing this pandemic.”

It’s long been proved, by academics and institutions such as Yale and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that housing is a key social determinant — the conditions in places where people live, work, and learn — of health. 

“The evidence supporting the direct relationship between housing interventions and health outcomes within low-income or otherwise vulnerable populations is expansive,” a 2015 report by the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute stated. “Whether enabling access to housing, creating a supportive housing environment, or simply expanding the availability of affordable housing to families in lower-poverty neighborhoods, the evidence suggests housing is critical to the health of vulnerable individuals.”

The American Journal of Public Health noted, “Poor housing conditions are associated with a wide range of health conditions, including respiratory infections, asthma, lead poisoning, injuries, and mental health. Addressing housing issues offers public health practitioners an opportunity to address an important social determinant of health.”

Before the coronavirus, thousands of homeless people died on the streets in California — in Los Angeles County alone, more than 700 passed away in 2016 and more than 800 in 2017. Those thousands of lost lives still didn’t get politicians moving quickly. Now, state and local governments are urgently addressing their homelessness crises. Why? Housing is key for protecting the health of the unhoused from the coronavirus, and getting people housed is another way to slow its spread.

State and city governments in California are now rushing to find shelter for the homeless. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Diego, among other cities, are all scrambling. San Diego has even turned its convention center into a homeless shelter. But the long-term commitment to help the unhoused remains to be seen.

(Clink on this link to tell Gov. Gavin Newsom to implement statewide protections for renters, homeowners, and the unhoused.)

The pandemic has also pushed California politicians to confront the state’s housing affordability crisis.

For years, rents have been excessive, forcing people to spend too much of their incomes on rent with the inability to save for sudden economic downturns like now; evictions through the Ellis Act — a California law that allows landlords and developers to evict tenants in rent-regulated properties and then build condominiums or boutique hotels — have been on a constant climb; and too many residents, unable to pay sky-high rents, have faced the prospect of homelessness or have become unhoused. 

California activists have long pleaded with politicians, and fought for policy changes, to address the housing affordability crisis, which most impacts middle- and working-class residents, especially those of color

That grassroots effort includes Proposition 10, the 2018 ballot measure that sought to repeal a California law, the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, that places severe restrictions on the expansion of local rent control policies. More than 525 organizations and civic leaders endorsed Prop 10. But the real estate industry, including corporate landlords Blackstone, Essex Property Trust, and Equity Residential, spent $77.3 million to confuse California voters through a massive, and deceptive, TV ad campaign. Prop 10 went down in defeat. 

With the coronavirus pandemic, state and local politicians are again forced to scramble, especially since activists are banding together and demanding emergency relief measures involving housing, rents, and evictions.

Statewide, a coalition of more than 140 organizations, including ACCE, California Coalition for Rural Housing, AFSCME 3200, Housing Is A Human Right, Tenants Together, and numerous others, is demanding that Gov. Gavin Newsom institute a rent freeze, an eviction moratorium, and other key measures.  

In Los Angeles, Healthy L.A. Coalition, a group of more than 150 organizations, including Housing Is A Human Right, is pressing the City Council to approve rent forgiveness and mortgage suspensions, among other legislative proposals. Shockingly, L.A. Council President Nury Martinez recently cancelled City Council meetings through March, stalling the push for emergency relief. Mayor Eric Garcetti, however, placed a temporary ban on Ellis Act evictions in L.A.

And state and local organizations, including Housing Is A Human Right, ACCE, the California Democratic Party’s Renters Caucus, Eviction Defense Network, UNITE HERE Local 11, and many others, are still moving forward with California’s Rental Affordability Act. The 2020 ballot measure seeks to reform Costa-Hawkins, rather than repeal it, and allow communities to expand rent control policies. 

Many activists say the Rental Affordability Act is needed now more than ever. Millions of middle- and working-class residents were already getting slammed by the housing affordability crisis. Now they’re dealing with less work or unemployment caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It will be even more difficult for working people to pay unfair, sky-high rents.

In a real way, the chickens have come home to roost in California — and politicians can no longer ignore the street-level realities of the state’s housing affordability and homelessness crises. Millions of Californians are watching them closely, waiting to see what the politicians will, or won’t, do. The public’s health is on the line.

(Clink on this link to tell Gov. Gavin Newsom to implement statewide protections for renters, homeowners, and the unhoused.)