“Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart,” Matthew Desmond wrote in his 2016 book “Evicted.”
As leaders of organizations in Lancaster County dedicated to making it possible for every resident to have a safe, welcoming, affordable place to call home, we share this belief. Yet housing affordability has been a growing challenge in this community and, as LNP | LancasterOnline reported recently, the COVID-19 crisis is making the challenge harder.
Many residents of Lancaster County will find their expenses out of reach as the crisis hits the economy in ways we are only beginning to understand — shuttered businesses, decreased employment and unforeseen health care expenses. Many more are anxious and worried about what will happen next.
We fully support the Pennsylvania Supreme Court putting a moratorium on evictions through the end of this month. Stopping legal eviction proceedings is critical. But the factors that often lead to housing instability and eviction have not changed.
Most evictions are due to short-term financial crises, like the loss of a job or unexpected medical expenses, causing tenants to miss rent payments — the same economic factors at play during the COVID-19 crisis.
We are already fielding calls from residents who have been laid off and are facing seemingly impossible choices between buying groceries and paying rent. Some just need someone to listen and remind them of the options they have. Others need help understanding how and where to access the new benefits being provided during this crisis. Helping navigate complicated support systems is one of the most vital ways our organizations assist residents and steward precious resources.
Simple interventions like negotiating a payment plan between the tenant and landlord, providing residents with coaching on monthly budgeting, providing a bit of cash assistance and connecting residents to benefits can help residents weather the crisis and stay in their homes.
Last year, HDC MidAtlantic worked with residents who were struggling to pay rent on action plans to stabilize their situations and with cash assistance grants from the organization’s Hope and Opportunity Fund. While the grants averaged less than $700, 49 households averted eviction through this approach.
We don’t know yet how much help residents will need to stay in their homes this year. But, for the duration of this crisis, HDC will enroll every resident who struggles to pay rent on time in its eviction prevention program.
Tabor Community Services and Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership have put together a guide for tenants, landlords and homeowners to help them navigate financial uncertainty through this time. It provides resources such as a sample script for talking to landlords and a sample letter landlords could send to their tenants. Users of the guide can access contact information for many area lenders and social service providers for food, clothing or utility assistance. Tabor and Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership are providing special financial counseling sessions to help people develop a plan to weather this financial crisis.
For those who were experiencing homelessness long before the COVID-19 crisis, recommendations to “shelter in place” or “stay at home” land with bitter irony. Their stories underscore how vital housing stability is to health and human thriving.
Recently, Tabor got a referral about a single woman living in her car in the parking lot of her employer, a local grocery store. She had found an older couple to stay with in Lancaster, but, due to COVID-19 and her continuing to work, the couple was nervous about having her in the house. Her resources quickly depleted, with no money for food and no gas in her car. Tabor’s outreach worker was able to buy the woman a meal and fill her gas tank, thanks to some recent donations for client assistance. This provided enough to get by until her next paycheck.
Stories like these prompted LanCo My Home and its service provider network to partner with the Lancaster County Community Foundation, the United Way of Lancaster County, the City of Lancaster, Lancaster General Health and others to establish a temporary shelter for those experiencing homelessness who must be quarantined due to COVID-19. And these partners are laying the groundwork to create a day shelter equipped to handle many of the needs of Lancaster County residents experiencing homelessness.
We believe housing is a human right, and that we must rally as a community to dedicate its resources to ensuring that housing is available and accessible to all residents. Our organizations remain committed to this vision throughout this crisis.
You can join us in securing this right by contacting any of our organizations, donating to the Lancaster Cares fund (LancoCares.org), and advocating with elected officials to include more funding for rental assistance in the next federal stimulus bill.
This piece was co-authored by Dana Hanchin, president and CEO of HDC MidAtlantic; Jennifer Koppel, director of LanCo My Home; and Michael McKenna, president of Tabor Community Services.