The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on just about every aspect of basic well-being in America: Health. Housing. Food. School. Work.
Cities and states have drained their budgets and local governments are falling behind on the services they’re responsible by law to fund — even as Congress keeps teasing out a preelection political standoff and the long-term toll of the crisis deepens.
After months of standoff, Washington is making a last-ditch effort to reach a bipartisan deal for another round of coronavirus aid. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resumed talks with Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin this week, though the two sides are still hundreds of billions of dollars apart.
Regardless, recovery could take years, with the nation’s most vulnerable enduring the worst of it. And their ranks will only continue to swell as the pandemic reshapes society, forcing more Americans out of their jobs and homes even as safety-net funding dies up.
Kids in poor households have already lost their link to schooling and free meals amid closures. More and more families are relying on charity for food — even as donations decline and local services get cut. And millions of people who’ve lived paycheck to paycheck are facing a mountain of rental debt that will subsume their other needs.
The numbers — beyond the 200,000 dead from the virus — dwarf any economic crisis since the Great Depression. More than 14 million households or as many as 34 million people may be unable to make rent as of mid-September, according to analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, as the tab owed to landlords nationwide could soon top $17 billion. Nearly 30 million people are getting unemployment benefits. One of every six adults and at least 16 percent of children can’t reliably get food.
Absent any new emergency relief fund from Congress, local governments say they’re facing a $650 billion budget hole by 2022 — with social and public services likely to bear much of the brunt. Nearly 70 percent have already had to delay or cut services, including housing, food assistance and public safety, the National Association of Counties reports. And state unemployment funds began running out months ago.
Meanwhile, nonprofits and charities, typically relied on to help support state and local services, have already seen some government contracts frozen. Individual donations have dramatically dropped.
The plunge into crisis is most visible in what until recently had been some of the fastest growing, thriving cities in the country, like Las Vegas and Houston. The gaps in meeting basic needs, which is likely to persist for months in the best-case scenarios, have already intensified America’s chronic public health woes.
Boom to bust in Vegas
Las Vegas, largely dependent on hospitality and the travel industry, was booming at the start of the year, but ground to a halt during the shutdowns and is still reeling from the economic fallout. City officials say it will take years to recover.
“People who look like they otherwise wouldn’t need help are starting to show up,” said Regis Whaley, director of Business Support for Three Square Food Bank, which serves southern Nevada including Vegas. As the economic crash reaches higher up on the economic ladder, the cars at the local drive-through food banks are “getting nicer and nicer.”
Meanwhile, a housing crisis is brewing. At the end of July, most low-income people in the state believed they probably or absolutely could not afford their rent, compared to a month earlier when most were still confident they could make the month’s rent, according to the consulting firm Stout’s analysis of Census survey data.
By the end of the summer, Nevadans in the $50,000 to $100,000 earnings bracket were also more likely to say they couldn’t either. In September, an estimated 140,000 to 180,000 households in the state weren’t able to make rent, according to new analysis of census data from the consulting firm Stout, which estimates that by January the debt to Nevada landlords will top $337 million.
Housing advocates have spent months sounding the alarm about the problem, which has persisted despite two different federal freezes on evictions that, to many in Washington, appeared to settle — or at least punt — any big crisis.
Congress in the CARES Act rescue package from March first put a 120-day moratorium on evictions, lasting through most of July. Yet as John Pollock of the Public Justice Center noted, it applied only to about one-quarter of the nation’s tenants. Meanwhile, he added, people often didn’t know whether the protections applied to them.
So evictions continued, according to a National Housing Law Project survey of 100 legal aid and civil rights lawyers in 38 states. At the end of June, some 91 percent of those attorneys said they were seeing illegal evictions. More than half said they witnessed tenants getting illegally locked out of their homes, while 18 percent said landlords were using intimidation or other eviction threats.
In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention triggered another eviction freeze. But there’s a checklist tenants must meet; protection is not automatic.
Congress hasn’t invested any more money into rental assistance — nor has Senate Republican leadership warmed to the idea. Meanwhile, more than a third of local programs assisting with rent have closed or paused operations, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
By the end of January, when the CDC’s freeze will expire, Nevadans will likely owe at least $337 million, according to new analysis released by the National Council of State Housing Agencies. These debts will also hurt landlords who depend on rentals for income, as well as state and local budgets — on top of the stress on the renters themselves.
“Even if they’re able to stay in their home, they’re cutting back on paying for urgently needed health care services, or food for their kids,” said Stockton Williams, the Council’s executive director.
Old problems, new urgency
Houston, one of the nation’s most racially diverse cities, is a sprawling metropolis that for the past three years was thriving. But the fall in oil prices had already bruised its economy and job market by the time Covid-19 arrived. Now the city and Harris County are chewing through tens of millions of dollars of aid money simply to stave off mass homelessness.
“We’re on the precipice of a massive, massive challenge with housing,” said David Haines, chief of strategy and innovation for BakerRipley, a community development organization that’s been coordinating housing and food relief efforts in Houston.
From interviews with some 2,400 Houston residents at the start of the pandemic, the organization found that about half were worried about their jobs, 45 percent hadn’t received the $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government, and two-thirds of the kids hadn’t been able to do the online learning that was supposed to substitute for in-person schooling. By August BakerRipley had delivered more than a million tons of food through biweekly food fairs — and, Haines said, “the lines are always there.”
Texas froze eviction orders in March, but that moratorium lapsed in late May. That month, the city of Houston had rallied to stave off a massive crisis, directing Cares Act funds into a $15 million first-come, first-served pot of money for rent. It was all gone within 90 minutes and was enough for about 12,000 households.
In August, Harris County put together a separate rental assistance effort of about $40 million. And the city of Houston by the end of July provided another $20 million for rent help, with $5 million coming from private donors. Catholic Charities of Houston averages about 100 requests for rental help per day.
In early September in the wake of evictions of people who couldn’t meet the CDC’s criteria, a Harris County constable started a GoFundMe page to help those who had lost their homes. So far it’s raised nearly $250,000.
This has all happened before the long-term unemployment picture has even settled.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo stressed these troubles aren’t anything new to Houston, they’re simply more intense and widespread in the cratering economy.
“If anything, [the crisis is] exposing the problems that existed, and we’re fighting so that the problems don’t get deeper because of the pandemic — and to use it as leverage to tackle these issues more aggressively,” she said.
Judge Jeremy Brown, who presides over eviction cases in the south side of Houston where he grew up, agreed. Over half of Houston’s Black residents were already spending from 30 percent to more than 50 percent of their income on rent, according to the Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. And, he noted, the ongoing segregation of Black and brown communities have exacerbated the toll.
“Like when we were in the Great Depression, there have to be system changes so we don’t find ourselves in this predicament again,” he said.