By Sean Keenan

Many leaders in the housing world have long argued that most social issues revolve around whether people have a roof over their heads and where that roof is located.

Where a person makes their home determines which schools their children can attend, which foods are accessible, and what transit options are available.

And, as a coalition of housing and legal scholars from Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, and Emory University pointed out in a recent Medium article, a person’s housing situation immediately impacts how equipped they are to avoid and fight the spread of the novel coronavirus wreaking havoc across the globe.

“Key public health measures such as hand-washing and social distancing can only happen in households with stable housing,” the post reads. “Eviction, foreclosure and utility shutoffs make it impossible for self-quarantine of individuals with high risk factors such as advanced age, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Evictions and foreclosures during this emergency will contribute to overcrowding in homeless shelters, increase the number of families doubling up during the pandemic, expose high-risk individuals to the virus, and contribute to mortality and morbidity as well as the burden on our health care system.”

These experts note that some government agencies have installed safeguards to ward off some of these potential nightmares, but more protections are needed to ensure people aren’t forced from their homes during the mounting crisis.

The group praised the Georgia Supreme Court’s temporary halt on non-essential judicial matters, which, the experts say, includes eviction cases, as well as Fulton County’s moratorium on landlord-tenant cases.

“However, in many counties around Georgia, magistrate courts continue to accept eviction filings and marshals continue to execute completed writs,” the article says. “We urge the Supreme Court to more clearly cover all eviction activity (including eviction filings) for the duration of the state of emergency plus at least 60 days.”

Additionally, the scholars wrote, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs should encourage those who own Low-Income Housing Tax Credit-supported properties to suspend eviction filings until the crisis is over, and in the aftermath.

They also suggested that the Supreme County or Gov. Brian Kemp could enact a ban on foreclosures during the state of emergency and for at least 60 days thereafter.

Additional demands include extending the deadline to apply for state-run mortgage assistance program HomeSafe Georgia — it ended March 31 — establishing a fund to help small-time landlords stay afloat and avoid proceeding with informal evictions — and potentially punishing those who try to push tenants out — and issuing a statewide moratorium on utility shutoffs until at least 60 days after the state of emergency is lifted.

Additionally, they say local governments and philanthropic organizations should provide operational support to properties that receive Section 8 rental assistance and to homeless shelters, the article says.

Of course, all these moratoria, guard rails, and other support systems only provide a temporary shield against displacement, and officials must work to ensure there isn’t a torrent of evictions, foreclosures and utility shutoffs once the crisis passes.

To prevent such major whiplash, the scholars outlined a few potential options to support economic recovery:

  • Emergency financial assistance should be provided to affected families by state and local government and by local and regional foundations and philanthropic organizations.
  • Foundation and philanthropic -funded assistance can be delivered by nonprofit agencies and faith-based organizations that already provide emergency financial assistance, including rental assistance and assistance to cure mortgage defaults. If there are qualifications for assistance they should be simple and include loss of wages (either from a layoff, loss of hours, or decline in income from small business).
  • Assistance should include help for workers who voluntarily stay home from work due to illness.
  • Funds should, at a minimum, cover at least two months of housing costs, including the rent or mortgage as well as utilities, property taxes, association fees and home insurance, up to some maximum amount of assistance per family.
  • All indications are that the economic contraction will be severe, involving large percentages of the labor force for a considerable duration. Measures to completely replace wages for all employees who have been laid off or lost wages should be enacted by private sector employers and by state government.

Read the full report here.

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