Growing housing crisis must become a priority in coronavirus response

As residents wait on rent and mortgage relief on the state and federal levels, Chicago officials are using costly hotel rooms instead of vacant public housing units to shelter the homeless.

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File photo by Jonathan Gibby

Rent is due again on Friday, the first day of yet another month in the coronavirus crisis, and thousands of Chicagoans won’t be able to pay it. Meanwhile outbreaks of the infection are occurring in homeless shelters.

The city and state are taking first steps to address this crisis, but advocates are working to make housing and homelessness issues a much higher priority — particularly at the Chicago Housing Authority. And they are starting from behind, because at every level, programs and policies have lagged far behind the need for many years.

The city has stepped up testing at homeless shelters and opened new sites to allow existing shelters to reduce their populations, so they can keep beds six feet apart, following social distancing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But so far there’s been no testing at “many, many shelters,” and the new beds have not made up for the loss of previously existing capacity, said Julie Dworkin, policy director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. 

She said on many days, people living on the street are being told there are no places available in shelters. They often have to wait days for a place, she said. 

A couple hundred hotel rooms are being rented at $175 a night to house people from shelters who are medically vulnerable. Another new site allows people who have tested positive for the virus to self-isolate. But after seven days of isolation, they have to move back to shelters, Dworkin said. “These large congregate settings are just not safe,” she said.

“The city’s response has not been very proactive,” she said. “It’s been very reactive, and it hasn’t been on the scale needed to keep people healthy and prevent deaths.”

The coalition’s goal “is moving high-risk people out of congregate shelters and into housing where they can shelter in place safely,” she said. The need is for the city to rent units to provide “bridge housing,” she said — individual units where people can live safely while looking for a permanent option. That’s less costly than hotel rooms. 

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Dworkin said there are millions of dollars potentially available for such an approach through emergency state and federal appropriations. She estimates there are 600 to 1,000 homeless people who are medically vulnerable or have tested positive for coronavirus and who should get priority for bridge housing.

New reports from the CHA show the agency has 372 units ready for immediate occupancy, said Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative — along with another 797 units where tenants have recently moved out, and which may only need a fresh coat of paint. She said recent federal waivers have reduced requirements around recertifying units’ habitability and increased flexibility in giving preference to individuals on the agency’s waiting list who are homeless.

“CHA certainly could expedite moving individuals who are homeless into vacant apartments,” she said. The agency “has resources they could be contributing in this moment.”

She said the agency’s lack of response to increased needs during the coronavirus crisis is an extension of “the same situation we’ve had for many, many years — the housing authority has no urgency around achieving full occupancy.” That’s because federal deregulation in the 1990s allows CHA to be funded by the federal government for units whether they are occupied or not.

“The easy first step would be to take those from the waitlist who are homeless and medically vulnerable,” she said. Instead, “we’re seeing the same lackluster set of excuses and defenses we’ve always seen, rather than a problem-solving approach” appropriate to the crisis.

“The city is doing all that it can to address the crisis,” Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara said in a recent op-ed. The housing department has made available 2,000 one-time grants of $1,000 for residents who can’t pay rent — and after 83,000 people applied for the program in the first five days, the department is “working hard to find additional resources for a second round of funding,” according to spokesperson Don Terry. The department also launched a grant program for affordable housing providers to help them make up for rental shortfalls.

But Mayor Lori Lightfoot has rebuffed a proposal by 47th Ward Ald. Matt Martin to require landlords to give tenants 12 months to catch up on unpaid rent accumulated during the state’s stay-at-home order. The ordinance was referred to the rules committee.

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On Wednesday, Lightfoot joined housing lenders and landlord associations to announce the Chicago Housing Solidarity Pledge, under which “lenders and landlords may offer eligible renters and mortgage holders deferred payment agreements and other financial relief.”

Martin is continuing to push for the ordinance, which is modeled on a measure recently enacted by Los Angeles. “While passing this legislation has been made more challenging, the stakes are too high to stop here,” he said in a statement this week.

Lightfoot’s allies also sent a resolution proposed by Martin calling on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to negotiate mortgage forbearance commitments from lenders to the rules committee, along with a resolution introduced by Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa to explore reallocating unused festival money to help struggling tenants.

At the state level, Rep. Delia Ramirez has been pushing to make the growing housing crisis a priority, prompting Pritzker to establish a task force of state agencies and the House of Representatives to form a housing working group. She plans to unveil an emergency housing package in coming days, which will include a provision cancelling rent for tenants with demonstrated financial hardship, coupled with a program offering landlords relief on mortgages, property taxes and utilities.

She hopes some version of the legislation will be included in an omnibus emergency bill when the General Assembly meets at the end of May.

A key provision would double funding for the state’s Homeless Prevention Program, which Pritzker’s proposed budget earlier this year funded at $10 million. The program has consistently run out of funding before the end of the year. Additional funding could help thousands of additional families, though it would still be insufficient, Ramirez said.

Ramirez said her office “started getting calls [about rent problems] at the end of last month, and the calls haven’t stopped.”

“We had a problem to begin with — in Humboldt Park we’ve seen gentrification and people forced out of their homes,” she said. “But now we are seeing people struggling across the state.”

Solutions equal to the scope of the problem would require a major effort by the federal government, and U.S. Rep. Jesús García has cosponsored a bill that would mirror Ramirez’s proposal on a massive scale. But as you may have noticed, the politics in Washington D.C. are a little dicey. In this crisis, an “all hands on deck” approach requires every agency at every level of government to step up and do everything it can.n

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the city’s position on a rent relief proposal by Ald. Matt Martin. The piece has been updated to reflect the ordinance’s current status.