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Coronavirus could put 1.5 mln U.S. families on cusp of homelessness

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 8 April 2020 14:39 GMT

Pandemic will add to millions of families who can barely pay rent, experts say

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By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK, April 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The economic blow of the coronavirus could push 1.5 million U.S. families to the brink of homelessness, housing experts warned, not only increasing poverty but accelerating the spread of the pandemic in overcrowded homes.

Those families would join some 8 million existing U.S. households on the verge of losing their homes, who pay half or more of their income on rent, said researchers and activists in a webinar about housing and the pandemic.

"It's just a shocking number of people in our country who are losing jobs, who are losing hours, who are losing income," said Diane Yentel, head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

"One of the outcomes will be an increase of another million and a half families of severely cost-burdened, extremely low-income renters," she told the online discussion on Tuesday, which was organised by the Urban Land Institute, a U.S. nonprofit.

The pandemic has infected about 400,000 people in the United States and killed more than 12,000, according to a Reuters tally, forcing businesses nationwide to close their doors and furlough workers.

The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits spiked last week to a record high of more than 6 million, and that did not include workers in the informal economy like ride-share drivers and domestics who are not eligible for jobless benefits.

Those families may spend 50% to 70% of their income on housing costs and often cram into crowded rental spaces with relatives, said Yentel.

"When you have such limited income to begin with, and you're paying more than half of it just to keep a roof over your head, you have very little left over," Yentel said.

About 560,000 people were homeless in the United States before the pandemic began to spread widely last month, a figure that the panel linked to increasingly unaffordable housing and stagnant wages.

But the number of families teetering on the edge of losing their homes, falling behind in rent payments or doubling up with relatives, was growing, they said.

"We focus a lot on homelessness, which is like the part of the iceberg that you can see," said Megan Sandel, a public health expert and associate professor at Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health.

"But there's a lot of homelessness below the surface, the hidden homeless. That's a housing insecure population," she said.

People without secure homes struggle with social distancing, hygiene precautions and stay-at-home orders put into place to help stem the spread of the pandemic, the experts said.

"What happens when people who are sleeping in homeless encampments have no access to water or soap?" Yentel said.

"What happens when we have millions of people who on a good day are on the cusp of losing their homes in the middle of a pandemic, when our collective health depends on our ability to stay home?"

She called for the U.S. Congress to approve $100 billion in emergency rental assistance to help low-income renters and small-property landlords who need rental income to survive.

Congress approved an unprecedented $2.3 trillion rescue package signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, and several states have banned coronavirus-related evictions.

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(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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