By MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Children’s Defense Fund
Home for the holidays. The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted many Americans’ ability to travel home and visit families over the holidays in the usual ways, but for millions of families it is threatening to do much worse. In September, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services announced an order prohibiting most evictions nationwide for the rest of the year, bringing desperately needed protection to the 30 to 40 million renters at risk of losing their homes during the pandemic and ongoing economic crisis – but this moratorium is set to expire Jan. 1. That order also didn’t provide renters with resources to cover back rent, utilities, or fees. Unless Congress and the federal government act now millions of the lowest-income families who have been protected will be at risk of eviction and homelessness to start the new year.
Our country can’t contain the pandemic if millions are without homes or on the brink of homelessness in the middle of winter and the most dangerous surge yet. No child in the richest nation on earth should go without the simple safety and stability of a home. Yet even before this crisis millions of American children spent periods of their crucial childhood years living in cars, campgrounds, or crowded, unsanitary and unsafe public shelters with almost nothing to call their own except anxiety, weariness and unfilled longings. How have we gotten to this place and allowed so many children to go without a safe and stable place to call home? As Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of the most famous poor child in history why is there no room for children in our 21st century inn?
The family housing crisis is rooted in the collision between eroding family incomes and growing housing costs. On the one hand, even before the COVID-19 crisis the economic recovery bypassed millions of American families with children, leaving them unable to afford available housing. On the other, the number of affordable housing units continues to fall because of gentrification, tax policies that encourage the development of luxury housing and commercial real estate, and the drastic underfunding of federal assistance that subsidizes housing for low-income families. Only 1 in 4 families with children who are eligible for housing subsidies receive them and the few who do receive help often can’t find housing. Only 36 affordable and available homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households.
The federal government has failed children and families by refusing to invest in economic security and affordable housing with devastating results. During a count on a single night in January 2019, 107,069 children were homeless. More than 1.5 million school-aged children experienced homelessness at some point during the 2017-2018 school year – more than double the number before the Great Recession. Young children are especially vulnerable: more than 1.3 million children under 6 were homeless in 2017 during their years of greatest brain development.
More than 5 million other children live in families with worst case housing needs, meaning they have an income below 50% of the area median, spend more than half their income on rent, and receive no housing assistance from the government. These children often live in unmanageably expensive, overcrowded, unstable, or dangerously substandard housing. Many of their families are just one emergency away from eviction or homelessness in the middle of a crisis where “one emergency away” is a constant threat.
To provide all children with safe and decent housing we need to act with urgency to increase the supply of affordable housing, expand housing vouchers for families with children and ensure basic economic security for working parents. No family should be forced to pay more than 30% of its income – the amount the federal government defines as affordable – to live in decent and stable housing. Children and families at most immediate risk during the pandemic need intervention now. Please contact your members of Congress and ask them to provide rent relief to keep families housed after the eviction moratorium ends. This is a season for our nation to return to a basic sense of decency.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is “Leave No Child Behind.” For more information, visit https://www.childrensdefense.org.