Urgent Steps Needed to Improve Worsening Housing  Situation in COVID Times

homeless india

Housing problems both for the weaker sections as well as for the middle class have worsened during COVID times. This can be seen even in some of the developed countries, although the problem is much more serious in poorer countries.

Recent reports from the USA suggest that the period of moratrium on evictions ( due to non-payment of rent or related factors ) is  about to end    so that several hundred thousand people face a risk of eviction.

Not all of them will be evicted, of course, but the risk and the resulting tensions are faced by all those who could not pay rent due to decreased income or loss of job in COVID times. Nearly 11 million people at the lower end have to spend nearly 50% of their income  on housing and protecting the roof on their head has become a growing concern for them. There is increasing worry that the number of homeless people, which has been increasing from 2016 onwards ( after decreasing during 2010- 2016), is likely to increase further.

To provide relief the government is supposed to have sanctioned  significant amounts of relief funds but only about 10 to 15% of these funds have actually reached those who need help due to bureaucratic delays and related factors.

Ironically even house-owners who are not super rich have their share of problems as they have not been able to make their mortgage payments during COVID times either because of reduced earnings or not getting their rental payment.

In a developing country like India problems are more serious as many urban poor households already living in  poor and cramped housing conditions have to now think in terms of shifting to even more cramped housing, even though the health risks of cramped housing have clearly increased in pandemic times.

Apart from health concerns, there have been other problems as children have to study from home and do not find conditions to be conducive at all. Apart from lack of computers or smartphones and connectivity, there is a serious space constraint as well.Even relatively better off households in slums and lower income colonies face these problems. With more people staying longer hours in lesser space with reduced income, tensions and quarrels can easily increase. There are very real and increased difficulties for meeting daily needs.

On top of it there is the worry of unpaid accumulating rent and the looming risk of eviction. Even if there is no eviction, how to pay the accumulated rent dues becomes an increasing problem.

Migrant workers who went back to their villages for some months and then started coming back to cities may have to seach for new housing and if this is far from their previous home then more efforts have to be made for getting adjusted in new place, ensuring subsidized rations here, finding affordable school for children etc. These problems are much more serious for minorities.

At a time when essential shelters and other facilities for homeless people are already very inadequate in most cities and towns, the number of homeless people can experience a significant increase. This may include people, including women and girls, not previously used to conditions of homelessness. In such a situation programs and matching funds for homeless people have to be stepped up very significantly wthout further delay.

This is an important time to increase overall welfare measures and relief for the urban poor, including cash relief and relief in the form of food rations. There should be a moratarium on evictions for a reasonable period of time . Demolitions of houses should be completely avoided during this difficult period at least.

Efforts to increase income and livelihood opportunities should be made on a much larger scale and in  more innovative and sustained ways. The introduction of a pilot project of urban employment guarantee scheme in Tamil Nadu should be welcomed in this context. Experts like Dr. Jean Dreaze have come up with innovative ideas for urban employment guarantee scheme and these should be considered.

While problems of urban poor are more urgent, the growing housing problems of middle class should not be neglected. In the case of several of these households who have experienced rising difficulties, they were linked to  housing schemes where they have to pay  instalments or return monthly loans. In recent times their capacity for this may have been suddenly eroded. Hence a liberal policy of re-adjusting payment schedules, providing immediate relief without increasing the longer-term  burden excessively, should be followed.

A big public housing program should be announced for affordable housing which can be paid for in small payment instalments. Such public housing schemes  should be for weaker sections as well as for middle class. This will generate substantial immediate livelihood opportunities as well as for construction workers who have been facing a difficult employment situation. Special priority should be given to construction of significant number of hostels and shelters for single women .

This is also a time when international organizations for housing rights and human rights, particularly those with United Nations affiliations, should make a special effort, a big and united effort for safeguarding housing rights in difficult times so that  evictions and demoilitions  can be prevented all over the world.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine and Where the Two Streams Met.

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