Nearly 2 million people live in public housing across the United States and at least 44% of those residents are Black—a population who may be hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many residents are poor and working class, and may not be able to buy enough groceries and supplies to weather the outbreak without assistance — especially as unemployment continues to grow as employers lay people off. Further, housing developments tend to be densely populated and rarely receive adequate maintenance. Poverty and building safety has long created a state of emergency, a result of negligence and mismanagement by city, state, and federal government. Due to these so-called leaders’ consistent failure to act, millions of people are even more susceptible to the coronavirus and its subsequent economic fallout.
Across the nation, 34% of residents receive income from formal wages. Many are already losing hours or being laid off, and others may be sick but take the risk of their health worsening, and potentially spreading the virus, because they have no other way of making ends meet. Public housing residents will be some of the hardest hit by cuts to employment, including those who earn income from gig and informal economies, and the effects are likely to linger.
People around the country are stockpiling supplies and groceries to sustain them through this pandemic, but not everyone has that option. Households in public housing make an average of $15, 721, with 94% of residents qualifying as having low to extremely low income levels. It shouldn’t be shocking that the potential for severe or deadly outcomes is greater among residents who do not have the resources to adequately prepare for a global pandemic. Too many of them, too many of us, are just trying to survive day-to-day.
Theoretically, government entities that oversee public housing must meet the needs of those living in their residences; but, too often, that mandate doesn’t manifest in practice. Outbreaks in these buildings are likely to spread rapidly given high levels of density and the fact that high traffic areas are rarely maintained adequately. Hallways, mailrooms, refuse areas, elevators, which often malfunction, and lobbies need to be cleaned around the clock to help contain outbreaks. Without adequate support, people who were already devastated by legacies of structural racism and exploitative capitalism will experience even worsened outcomes related to the virus, and more generally even after the outbreak subsides.
Where White Supremacy and Health Collide
Those living in public housing tend to experience higher rates of underlying illness that may complicate outcomes for those who contract COVID-19. At least 20% of residents have asthma — far above the 7.7% national average — largely due to environmental exposures within neighborhoods and buildings. Moreover, at least 18% of public housing residents are over the age of 62, which places them at higher risk for experiencing severe outcomes if they were to be exposed to the virus. Residents who are unable to afford or travel to get necessary groceries, medication, and supplies are also particularly vulnerable. A significant number of people, including the elderly, those who are disabled, and single parents with young children also may have difficulties getting groceries and supplies.
Thankfully, many community organizers are courageously organizing to form mutual aid networks to assist those most in need. But government stimulus efforts should especially target those who will further be disadvantaged by the pandemic.
What Happens When People Do Get Sick?
Structural racism and economic violence make people more susceptible to illness and the need for hospitalization, even as getting tested and seeking treatment for COVID-19 remains complicated. Public funding of hospitals has seen steady cuts, and many facilities in impoverished neighborhoods lack adequate resources, are routinely understaffed, and already nearing capacity on a daily basis. This means that public housing residents who do get sick will have a harder time securing treatment if they don’t currently have adequate healthcare or their neighborhood hospitals are at capacity. With the virus spreading rapidly, hospitals may start turning people away who need ventilators and life-saving treatment.
Hospitals and intensive care units with a limited amount of beds will eventually have to start making decisions on who might live or die. Free testing sites need to be set up close to public housing residents, as the farther out they are the harder it will be for residents, especially those without cars, to have access to them. Rapid construction of treatment facilities in schools, universities, and other public and private buildings is needed, especially in neighborhoods that lack the healthcare infrastructure to deal with outbreaks in or near public housing residences and other areas that experience high levels of density and poverty. Residents who may be undocumented and live with family members also need free testing and treatment where their anonymity is protected.
As much as the crisis is exposing the neglect of the city, state, and federal government, it is also revealing the strength and courage of residents and organizers to not only fight to end the virus but to imagine a different world altogether. In NYC, mutual aid organizers from coalitions such as We Keep Us Safe are seeking to build safety and security outside of systems of punishment amid the outbreak. They are purchasing and coordinating drop-offs for groceries, medication, and supplies for NYCHA residents in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
That is just one example. Regardless of who provides it, residents urgently need free testing, food, funds, prescriptions, water — especially for those who have unsafe drinking water. Moreover, rent, utility, and eviction freezes should be immediately enacted. But it shouldn’t stop there. Those same bills should be wiped, as once the virus subsides many residents who were already struggling will have to recover from the economic fallout.
Above all, this COVID-19 outbreak is exposing the historic government neglect toward public housing residents, which has been shaped by legacies of structural racism and capitalism. This is not only unjust, it long ago set the stage for exacerbated public health crises. In this moment and beyond, public housing residents need resources and support. They need decision making power to create their own visions for safety and security that will prevent the next crisis from devastating their communities.
Times are too urgent and life is too fragile to accept anything less.
Philip V. McHarris is a writer, activist, and PhD candidate in sociology and African American studies at Yale University.
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