You can’t follow the Stay at Home order if you don’t have a home. As cities across the country plan for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, we have a collective responsibility to prioritize keeping families safe and in their homes as the cornerstone of any recovery plan. In Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the country, and the city with the third largest income gap between the wealthy and the poor, the need for emergency housing protections is even more pressing.
Skyrocketing eviction rates and rampant gentrification were already wreaking havoc on low-income communities long before COVID-19 hit. In 2017, 53% of renters in Philadelphia were cost-burdened, meaning they spent more than 30% of their income on rent. Roughly one in every 14 renters in Philadelphia is under threat of eviction each year, and presently there are over 2,000 cases in eviction court waiting to be heard once the Public Health Emergency order is lifted.
I have experienced the affordable housing crisis firsthand. I was raised in the Nicetown neighborhood of Philadelphia, and still live on the same block that I grew up on with my four children. As a young single mother, I paid my way through the Community College of Philadelphia while working as a Nursing Assistant. Later, I began working for Easterseals, where I connected children with disabilities and their families to the programs and resources they needed to thrive.
Then, after 17 years of employment at Easterseals, I was laid off. It was 2011, and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett had introduced sweeping budget cuts that eliminated critical programs across the state. I was devastated, and had a difficult time finding employment with a comparable salary that would support me and my growing family. From there, my circumstances quickly spiraled. Unexpectedly, I lost my house to a sheriff’s sale. In what felt like overnight, I went from being gainfully-employed to struggling to pay rent in my own home.
My story bears many similarities to what families are currently experiencing across Philadelphia and across the country. In April of 2020, the national unemployment rate hovered at just below 15%, the highest since the Great Depression. Just like the 2008 recession, families are suddenly faced with potentially paralyzing budget cuts and unprecedented job loss. Austerity and years of targeted disinvestment have ravaged the Black community, and further cuts will undoubtedly decimate the already weakened social safety net that thousands of Philadelphians rely on to get by.
Increases in homelessness and displacement will result in a massive wave of COVID-19 infections, and people of color will be the hardest hit. In my neighborhood of Nicetown, which suffers from severe air pollution as a result of SEPTA’s Midvale Bus Depot, we have a childhood asthma rate of 31%, making residents all the more susceptible to COVID-19. It is not the time for us to ask for further sacrifice and resilience from our hardest hit communities. It is time that we stepped up and prioritized them instead.
Keeping families in their homes is not only good public health policy, it is a logical step in aiding economic recovery. As someone who has lived the destabilizing effects of housing insecurity firsthand, I know that keeping families in their homes is the first step in getting them back on their feet. It is difficult to imagine finding a new job, homeschooling your children, and doing the increased domestic labor that is required to maintain a home during a pandemic if you are also facing homelessness. It is on local and state governments to step up to ensure that our most vulnerable populations are not left behind as we begin to pick up the pieces of our post-COVID-19 world.
That is why I worked with my colleagues Councilmembers Helen Gym and Jamie Gauthier at the citywide level to introduce a set of common-sense protections for renters in Philadelphia. The Emergency Housing Protection Act would prohibit large rent increases for a year after the pandemic, waive late payment fees, extend the eviction moratorium, require mediation prior to eviction proceedings, establish rent repayment plans, and allow renters to recover damages after illegal lockouts. These measures will help families stay in their homes and provide them with needed security during this uncertain time.
However, we know that keeping families in their homes is not the end of the solution. We need to be proactive about lasting strategies to address the health issues faced by working families. Longer term economic stimulus plans should address the need for green jobs and infrastructure; affordable housing; access to quality healthcare; and well-funded public education.
The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare many of the inequities of our current system, but it has also presented us with an opportunity for real change. As a city and as a society we should have the urgency to provide much-needed immediate relief and the courage to fight for structural changes that would make Philadelphia a livable, healthy, and safe city for generations to come.