By Dr. Gwen L. DuBois
While we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, we are also in the midst of an ever-worsening eviction crisis in Baltimore. The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the national eviction order puts thousands of families in a perilous position.
A recent article in Journal of the American Medical Association described housing as “health” and suggested that we should consider providing housing as equivalent to giving a vaccine in regards to preventing illness and disability. Furthermore, the Torah obligates us to preserve our own life and health, and that of others. The Gemara in Bava Kamma teaches that, in response to a plague, we have an obligation to stay in our homes as much as possible. Consequently, society has an obligation to make sure that people can stay in their homes, especially during a time of pandemic.
Even before COVID-19, low birth weight, premature births and increased infant mortality were all associated with evictions and eviction filings. Inadequate housing is associated with chronic asthma, and is dangerous for children’s development especially for those under 5. Young children exposed to overcrowding and/or multiple moves in one year were more often reported by their caregivers to have poor health, food insecurity, impaired educational, social, or emotional skill, and were measured to have low weight compared to other children.
In older children and adolescents, a history of multiple moves has been associated with mental health problems later in life including violence and suicide. In adults, eviction filings are associated with increased suicides and evictions with increased use of emergency rooms and increased all-cause mortality.
Estimates are that homeless people who become sick with COVID-19 are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die than the general population. One study found that policies that reduce evictions and utility shut-offs were effective in reducing COVID-19 infections and deaths.
Evictions lead to expensive and ineffective overutilization of emergency room and hospital care and, with homelessness, lead to a tragic shortening of life. In this pandemic, evictions increase cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. It is unjust to evict people in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
As a member of both Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility and Jews United for Justice, I believe it is a public health imperative that evictions be prevented. Housing is a form of health care, and evictions increase illness, suffering and sometimes death, especially during a pandemic.
To that end, since this pandemic is not over, the governor’s eviction order should be extended, and a new executive order issued, requiring landlords to utilize emergency rental assistance before they can evict a renter. With this new executive order, tenants could stay in their homes, and landlords could get paid for past due rent.
In Baltimore City, Mayor Brandon Scott is working to establish an eviction diversion program in rent court and to get the rental assistance money out to landlords. I hope to see this happen expeditiously. It is unconscionable to evict families when only a fraction of the money that has been allocated has been distributed so far. I urge the mayor to also allocate $21 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to fund the right to counsel program for renters over the next four years. Right to counsel reduces evictions, which is why as council president, Scott championed legislation to establish the program.
In addition, long term, we need more low-cost housing. Preventing evictions and keeping people housed saves lives.
Dr. Gwen L. DuBois is president of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility and a member of Jews United for Justice.