For many families, health crisis adds to homelessness risks
Across the country, Americans are being told, "Stay home." As coronavirus sweeps across our country, communities are heeding the advice of epidemiologists and taking drastic steps to curb social interactions to slow the spread. For most, this means working from home, canceling plans, and cooking at home instead of dining out. For millions of families nationwide who struggle with housing insecurity, however, "stay home" represents a directive that would leave them without a home to go to.
In Cook County, we are taking action to help those families, and calling on other local governments to address the housing gap that the federal government is unable, or unwilling, to fill.
According to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, 20.5 million renter households nationwide are considered "cost-burdened," meaning they put at least 30% of their monthly income toward rent; of these, nearly 11 million pay at least half their monthly income in rent. This situation calls for tough decisions to be made on a daily basis -- choices like paying for food and medicine, or rent.
During times of crisis, however, these choices become exacerbated. Right now, low-income, working families are losing what little income they have as bars, restaurants and office buildings shutter. Others must stay home with children whose schools have been closed. Still others have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, and must self-isolate in order to stay healthy.
For those households, missing even one shift means a smaller paycheck. A smaller paycheck means a missed rental payment. And for many low-income households, a missed rental payment means an eviction notice hanging on the front door.
Evictions are a disruptive and traumatic event. It's expensive to go to court, and many families lose possessions in the process making a household's financial situation even worse. The psychological strain of being uprooted is especially damaging to children. These effects should make us concerned about evictions even in the best of circumstances, but in a time of pandemic, evictions are also a public health threat.
People who are evicted may have to "double up" by living with family or friends temporarily. They may find themselves leaning on the local shelter systems, or they may be forced to sleep in cars -- even on the street. These options are a nightmare on an individual level, but these circumstances also make it impossible to practice social distancing. Virtually every eviction that takes place during this critical time will result in more community spread of COVID-19.
It is our duty as leaders in government to do what we can to lessen the burden. In Cook County, we are leading the nation in taking immediate steps to protect our most vulnerable families. At the Housing Authority of Cook County, the second largest provider of affordable housing in Illinois, we have committed to working with any resident that is unable to pay rent due to financial hardship during this time.
Not a single eviction notice based on inability to make rent will be served under our watch. Thanks to the efforts of other county offices, our court systems have also moved to close most civil courts for the time being, and have officially implemented a moratorium on evictions countywide.
While the federal government shirks its responsibility to protect our most vulnerable citizens, it is up to us in local government to pick up the mantle. The actions taken here, and in cities and states across the country, offer a crucial protection to millions of families already living in precarity. Yet this is not enough: it is our duty to ensure that all families nationwide have secure housing. Evictions must be halted in every community while we face this threat, for the sake of our economy, our health care system, and our people.
• Richard Monocchio is executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County. Toni Preckwinkle is president of the Cook County Board.