Opinion: Forestalling a Coming Housing Crisis and Planning for Columbus’ Future
There’s no shortage of talk about housing problems in Columbus. The city’s growth has sent housing prices shooting up, and there was an affordable housing shortage in the city even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic damage wrought by COVID has only made this worse, and at present, the city (like many other cities) is sitting atop a potential powder keg. If bold action is not taken by the city, we could collectively be facing a housing crisis that would dwarf the Great Recession. Ohio has done especially poorly at mitigating harm: the Eviction Lab gave Ohio a score of 0.5 out of 5.
In a sense, we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by the eviction moratorium. It is a good thing that it was renewed until June, but it is porous. In Columbus, evictions have gone up in recent months. These evictions present a public health crisis and will deal long-lasting harm to people who lose their housing.
The number of evictions could still go up further once the moratorium expires. Moreover, a moratorium cannot solve what happens as people fall behind on months of rent. One estimate nationally is that around 20% of all renters have fallen behind. Over a million households are so far behind on mortgage payments that they are at risk of eviction. To prevent a crisis from coming to pass, bold action by the city is needed.
The most immediate action that could be taken by the city would be to halt evictions in Columbus. Municipal courts can choose to not hear eviction cases until it comes to pass that COVID is under control. There are precedents for this in other cities. A St. Louis Circuit Court judge created and has repeatedly extended a local eviction moratorium that has filled some of the holes by the CDC moratorium. That could be easily copied by our court system. There’s simply no good argument for allowing evictions to proceed right now, and this would stem some of the short-term economic damage while protecting public health.
The more damaging problem is, of course, the issue of back payments. Households that have fallen behind on their rent and mortgage payments cannot be ignored, or we risk a homelessness crisis on par with the Great Depression. Thankfully, there’s some aid coming from the federal government. Both the December relief package and Biden’s stimulus plan include funds for emergency rental and mortgage assistance, though it will take some time for funds from Biden’s plan to become available to states and cities.
However, it is not enough to rely solely on funds coming from the federal government, and there are additional supports we can implement at the local level. The city should supplement the funds it receives from the various stimuli. Other cities have developed small business community funds as a consequence of COVID; the model could be adapted to provide support to struggling households. Late fees for nonpayment of rent could be suspended to prevent people from being trapped in spiraling debt, similar to what Philadelphia legislated.
There are other strategies the city can implement to support people at risk of losing their housing. Cleveland and New York have both passed laws mandating legal aid to individuals facing eviction. This kind of program needs to be created in Columbus as well, and not just as a short-term feature but as a permanent feature of the social safety net. Philadelphia has implemented an eviction diversion program that requires both landlord and tenant to find a mutual arrangement to preclude eviction: this is done with a mediator.
Looking to long-term recovery, Columbus needs to focus on affordable housing solutions. This is necessary simply because the economic consequences of COVID will not vanish once we’ve all been vaccinated. Programs that are supposed to provide rental assistance or short-term relief should be repurposed; the same business development funds mentioned above could be used as a model for housing development agencies. The city could use these to invest in affordable housing and begin building housing stock that will be desperately needed in the future. Legal aid for tenants should be made permanent as well, as should eviction diversion.
COVID-19 has been a wakeup-call to the fact that our social safety net is simply too frayed to treat people fairly. In that sense, it’s also an opportunity to make changes and reorient our priorities toward a more humane society. Seen from this perspective, what is proposed above is a chance to fix the long-term housing problems Columbus will grapple with in the coming decades.