When I worked as a caseworker for a local nonprofit here in Pittsburgh, every spring, I saw the same thing happen year after year. As soon as the winter utility moratorium lifted, we would have a surge in requests for utility assistance to prevent shut-offs. Often, utility bills were so large that we couldn’t realistically help most of the families who applied. For reasons of funding scarcity, we had to instill a strict policy aimed at helping only those whose utility bills were low enough to be helped, and avoided paying down utility bills that were likely to be shut off anyway (bills that were in the thousands).
Of those families we could actually help, they were often forced to choose between letting the gas get shut off and keeping the power on because they “didn’t need the gas again until winter” and Pittsburgh’s sweltering humidity was right around the corner. For too many of these families, access to running water was negotiable and access to running water should never be negotiable.
Now, factor in the coronavirus pandemic. The health, social and economic consequences of the novel coronavirus — especially for Pittsburgh’s region’s most vulnerable — are potentially devastating, but they don’t have to be. And there are already measures in the making.
Federal, state and local governments have, or are in the process of, addressing utility, housing, health and income stability through a number of temporary policy measures to delay the spread of COVID-19 and keep our healthcare system below capacity. To name several local actions directly, a few local utility companies have extended and expanded moratoriums on utility shut-offs. City Councilor Deb Gross will introduce a Will of Council on Tuesday calling on a) remaining utility companies to enact temporary moratoriums on utility shut-offs and b) the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office and the Pennsylvania Courts to place a moratorium on evictions, residential foreclosures and tax liens on residential property. Likewise, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh has placed its own moratorium on evictions, pending issues of safety.
At the federal level, the U.S. House passed a bipartisan legislative package with paid emergency leave, extended family and medical leave, free testing for COVID-19 and expanded funding for Medicaid, as to provide state governments with the resources required to combat the pandemic. President Trump supports the package, although the bill has exemptions for employers with more than 500 people. Pittsburgh recently guaranteed that all employees working in city limits get paid sick leave from their employer. The U.S Department of Labor also expanded unemployment benefits to workers affected by COVID-19.
While all of these measures are commendable, federal shortcomings aside, I have yet to hear local, state or federal officials talk about what happens when the spread of the virus is eventually under control. I realize it might be overwhelming to think of what’s next given where we are now but I believe it’s necessary given the following concerns, assuming proposed moratoriums are enacted:
What happens when moratoriums on evictions are lifted and low- to moderate-income households are faced with their current rent and at least one or more months of back rent?
What happens when moratoriums on foreclosures are lifted and low- to moderate-income homeowners are faced with their current mortgage payment and at least one or more months of mortgage payments?
What happens when moratoriums on utilities are lifted and families are left in the dark when lights are shut off, or when low-income families can’t bathe their children when water faucets run dry?
What happens when our current provisions under unemployment insurance end and markets still haven’t recovered from the severe economic tremors we are about to face as a result of business closures and layoffs?
According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, nearly a third of American households were cost burdened by rent as of 2017. Given this fact, accompanied by our national affordable housing crisis caused by ever-rising utility and housing costs, stagnant wages and a decline in federal funding for affordable housing programs, Allegheny County and localities all over the country could be facing two major crises when the pandemic of COVID-19 is under control (and after moratoriums are lifted): mass evictions and mass utility shut-offs.
These problems aren’t new. Annual spikes in utility shut-offs and homelessness and housing instability, in general, are the result of our systemic failure to provide a fully comprehensive and exhaustive social safety net for the poor, working class and for the most vulnerable among us. We will face these same issues when our temporary policy measures to ensure stability during the outbreak are lifted but at a scale that may be hard to imagine.
Local, state and federal lawmakers must act now to place a moratorium on evictions, housing foreclosures and utility shut-offs, and provide low- to moderate-income households with the necessary resources to meet their basic needs.
Local, state and federal lawmakers must create assistance funds to help low- to moderate-income families pay down back rent, mortgage and utility bills, as to prevent the mass evictions, housing foreclosures and mass utility shut-offs that could occur once moratoriums (if hopefully enacted) are eventually lifted.
Lawmakers could also explore changes to unemployment benefits that cover all of lost income, not just a portion of it, and extend how long individuals can receive unemployment benefits. Or, federal lawmakers could divert funding toward an emergency and prolonged unconditional cash transfer (a kind of universal basic income) for low- to moderate-income households, as to allow households to not fall behind on rent and utility bills in the first place.
Public health officials are encouraging lawmakers to take drastic action now to delay the spread of the virus, to prevent spikes that will otherwise overwhelm our hospital systems. Likewise, the actions lawmakers take now to plan for the post-COVID-19 outbreak could prevent eviction courts, city and county services and nonprofits from being completely overwhelmed in the coming months. Social service agencies could face huge influxes as vulnerable households unable to pay down utility bills, rent or mortgages seek assistance regarding the possibility of no utilities or even eviction and homelessness. Utility shut-offs and eviction notices (even when the rent owed is paid down) affect people’s credit and eviction histories, which impact everything from landlords who will rent to you and what you can borrow.
Whatever the mechanism, lawmakers need to start planning for these possibilities now. We can’t stop one crisis only to enter another.
Precautions the author is taking:
As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, my family and I have taken extreme measures to protect vulnerable family members. My mom has COPD, congestive heart failure, diabetes, asthma and has been on oxygen 24/7 for several years now. My dad had major heart surgery a few years back and has diabetes. Both of them are over 60. If either of them became infected, it could be fatal. My brother moved into my small apartment to isolate himself from my parents like I and the rest of my siblings have. We haven’t physically interacted with them for more than a week. My mom and dad have agreed to stay inside indefinitely, and my siblings and I are getting all of their groceries and prescriptions (and dropping them off on their front porch).
One of my siblings has been forced to choose between losing income and not possibly infecting others (should they be a carrier). I help financially support several family members, and the virus has put a greater strain on my ability to do that. All of my immediate family members are only going outside for walks or exercise (with social distance) but otherwise are not attending anything, from religious services to therapy. Lastly, I also struggle with a chronic illness and am self-isolating to keep myself from dealing with even more than I already am. This virus could kill people like my parents and best friend who has cystic fibrosis. Please adopt all of the measures proposed by lawmakers and public health officials to delay the spread of this virus. And I’m lucky enough to work remotely and have an apartment to follow said measures. Others aren’t so lucky, and we must make sure they have the resources to follow guidelines.
Nick Cotter is a researcher with Allegheny County and the creator of the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author alone. This piece does not reflect official views of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. You can follow the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project on Twitter @ThePittsburghNP.