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In the Pandemic, Millions of People Could Lose Their Homes

Billions of people have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the unprecedented nature of the economic and health crisis could quickly turn into a housing crisis, the author writes. Many advocacy groups and others are proposing ways to avert such a disaster as well as to help people without a home. JOHN PENNEY

For households around the world, soon it will be the time of the month to start thinking about next month’s rent, mortgage or housing loan payments. Billions of people have been directly or indirectly affected by Covid-19. This unprecedented public health and economic crisis could easily turn into a devastating housing crisis.

Economies are struggling, and more than 25 million jobs may be lost by the end of 2020, as governments battle to contain the health crisis with social distancing and lockdowns. The two billion people who work in the informal sector are among the most at risk of losing income and often have no job security or safety net to fall back on. They could lose their homes.

Depending on how long we are confined to our homes, defaulting on rent, mortgage, equity loans or utilities payments could lead to evictions, attempts to seize property by mortgage providers and utility shut-offs.

In the United States, advocates are pushing for governments to take legislative or local action to protect renters, homeowners, landlords and property managers. The US stimulus bill provided mortgage relief to certain homeowners. Some states and local governments have suspended utility disconnections and late fees.

Parts of Europe and Australia have taken similar steps. Some governments have initiatives or stimulus packages to provide financial assistance for businesses, including banks, landlords and property managers. However, the policies so far have not covered the gambit of issues facing homeowners, renters and those living without adequate housing. Nor do they recognize everyone’s right to adequate housing.

Women are concentrated in many of the groups that have been particularly hard hit by the looming recession — or depression — but who may have no access to social safety nets, including domestic workers, sex workers and informal sector workers. Similarly, women and girls are at heightened risk of domestic violence during lockdowns due to social isolation, financial stress, breakdown of community structures and lack of information or access to social support, as well as disrupted court schedules.

The need for quick action to stem the pandemic has also drawn attention to people without adequate housing, including homelessness, and in camps and severely overcrowded locations. Before this public health crisis, over a billion people lived in informal settlements, and an estimated 150 million people, or about 2 percent of the world’s population, are homeless.

Some countries have recognized the need to find adequate housing for everyone, including those who are homeless. The effort to address the needs of this marginalized population put at risk by their inability to follow hygiene recommendations or social distancing is necessary and laudable. But what will happen when the danger to public health has passed? Homelessness is a human-rights crisis playing out across the world, and temporary fixes aren’t enough without a longer-term plan that centers on everyone’s right to adequate housing.

As Covid-19 restrictions ripple worldwide, governments need to act quickly to keep people who have homes safely and affordably in their abodes. Countries with government-backed mortgage programs with moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures should strengthen them.

Countries with huge informal settlements and encampments in slum areas with insecure title and tenure will face special challenges, as will countries with many people internally displaced or refugees living in camps or with relatives. All governments, at minimum, can make sure people aren’t forcibly evicted during this crisis. And if evictions happen, officials need to step in and ensure that people aren’t left without adequate housing.

UN-Habitat and humanitarian organizations have offered proposals for governments to consider to ensure that people maintain their housing in informal settlements and encampments. They have addressed the need for clear relevant information, affordable water and safe sanitation, financial support and social protection measures.

And the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, has provided guidance notes on protecting renters, mortgage payers, people living in homelessness and residents of informal settlements. Yet many governments still seem overwhelmed by the looming public health crisis and still lag in responding to this potential housing crisis.

As governments decide how to protect their people and their economy, they should address the needs of those who could lose their homes. They should ensure that no one in adequate housing loses it during this health emergency. And they should take rapid steps to ensure that everyone without adequate housing gets it and that it isn’t temporary but lasting, as is their right.

Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu is a women’s rights researcher focusing on land rights at Human Rights Watch.

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