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For Migrant Families, COVID-19 Made Precarious Housing Much Worse

As the national lockdown went into effect in March 2020, Susana, a Latina woman in her early 60s, was living alone on the Northside of Minneapolis. She had been getting by as a childcare provider for an affluent family. But when her employer began working from home, that source of income became impromptu at best—and, more importantly, unsustainable. Susana’s decade-long source of income came to a close. 

With living expenses rising and few job opportunities, Susana, her two adult daughters, and four grandchildren doubled up in a three-bedroom apartment to cut costs. A new routine developed: Susana’s daughters would go to work, regardless of COVID surges, and she would stay with the grandkids while they tried to make the most of online schooling. 

Sometimes, to help contribute to the household income, Susana would cook large batches of food to sell to her neighbors. While she expected to return to work in the near future, even then she feared that she would still be barely scraping by. 

The cramped living quarters and the fear of contracting COVID under such circumstances took a toll. Susana was permanently stressed and anxious, not just for her family but the broader immigrant community in Minneapolis.  

“If one person has COVID, the whole family has COVID. And you can’t isolate yourself if you’re in a home with six people; there’s no way to be isolated from each other,” Susana explained in Spanish. “So you just kind of have to all stay in the house and either hope you get better. I’m afraid to be in my home. If one of us is positive, we’re all positive.”

The issue of insufficient, crowded residencies—and their negative impact on public health—have been documented since the beginning of the industrial era. But much like every other socio-economic inequality, COVID-19 exacerbated the discrepancies between the housing of the working poor and everyone else. 

“There are some people I know who had to leave their apartments to then live with others just to limit costs,” Susana said. “Some apartments are just one bedroom, [but] you’ll have someone living in the living room. We can’t pay for a $900 one-bedroom, especially with little work right now—people working fewer hours, the salaries are pretty minimal. You just have to do this out of necessity.” 

“I don’t think I’m the only one in my community,” she continued. “This is happening to a lot of people. And you know, some people can get help, some people are able to qualify for certain types of support, and then others aren’t, so that’s kind of the situation I’m seeing.”

Housing for both documented and undocumented people has become even more precarious over the past decade. Low wages and high rents often compel immigrant families, who are overrepresented among frontline workers, to crowd into residencies to make ends meet

In the context of the pandemic, the consequences have proven deadly. One national study found that “with each 5 percent increase in households with poor housing conditions, there was a 50 percent higher risk of COVID-19 incidence and a 42 percent higher risk of COVID-19 mortality.”

And similar to prisons, jails, and deportation centers during the pandemic, quarantining was essentially impossible. 

Another piece of public health research, focused uniquely on Los Angeles County, noted that overcrowded housing was “a major risk factor for COVID-19 mortality” and a more useful indicator for the number of deaths an urban area would endure, as compared to the elderly population or “total number of COVID-19 cases.”  

Policies Of Neglect Push Migrant Families To Margins

Despite this obvious impact on public health, both federal and state governments failed to properly alleviate the compounding effects of housing deprivation, vulnerable tenants, and the social consequences of a pandemic that pushed exposed communities even further into the margins. 

Because many undocumented households don’t have access to proper financial and legal channels, these populations frequently struggle to procure the necessary assistance they need.

Furthermore, migrant tenants, particularly those that are undocumented, often don’t qualify for the full slate of protections and subsidies offered to native-born renters—such as in red states with tight welfare regulations. 

Indeed, the reverberations of The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation  Act of 1996 (PRWO) continue to haunt working-class, migrant families. This Clinton-era law explicitly prevents immigrant households—with some exceptions—from accessing a slew of welfare benefits and social services. 

“Undocumented immigrants are left out of a lot of federal programs, some of those federal programs have stronger eviction protections than local programs, certainly more than market-rate housing,” said Samuel Stein, a New York-based housing policy analyst and urban geographer. 

In part due to living in “illegal” residencies, like apartments that are subdivided into smaller units, migrant tenants are harder to protect. And their inability to utilize public benefits—whether they are, for example, officially excluded or lack a Social Security card—makes occupants even more vulnerable to apathetic landlords or property managers.  

As such, overcrowding units with multiple generations is a sure way to self-subsidize. 

Though the CDC, until recently, enforced an eviction moratorium under both the Trump and Biden administrations, individual states have their own specified processes. While immigrants do technically have access to such protections, it can be difficult to exercise them. 

Even before the pandemic, landlords had used ICE to pressure, harass, and evict undocumented tenants, despite it being blatantly illegal to do so. But as COVID infiltrated every corner of the globe, pregnable renters weren’t always protected by the eviction moratorium—especially if they were undocumented

“Most [eviction moratoriums] require that you say you lost income because of the pandemic. I do think it’s highly likely that immigrants lost income and jobs at a higher rate than U.S.-born workers just because of the kinds of jobs that they are pushed into doing,” Stein said. 

If you’re undocumented, your boss may not record your wages on an official ledger. As such, it can be difficult for immigrant workers to demonstrate that the pandemic reduced their revenue. When this was the case, eviction security proved difficult to enforce. 

“They [also] maybe don’t have access to credit and banking systems, and they can’t get into public housing or get a voucher to get into private housing, like Section 8, so they’re more likely to be in the kinds of situations where people get evicted. Sometimes it doesn’t even go through the formal system,” Stein concluded. 

The byzantine, exclusionary logic of federal and state welfare systems, alongside the xenophobic and nativist tendencies of the Trump administration, seems to have played a substantial role in leaving households like Susana’s at the mercy of the market. 

Some of Trump’s efforts to exclude undocumented households from a variety of COVID relief funds were nullified when Biden came into office, but plenty of exceptions remain. 

“If there was an eligible person in your household, you were eligible for the stimulus check, that was not the case with respect to the Trump administration,” Kate Walz, a senior attorney at the National Housing Law Project, said. “With respect to the emergency rental assistance dollars, homeless prevention assistance, those types of dollars, I don’t think that there was a change in the eligibility for those sets of funds, whether under Trump or Biden,” she added. 

“Both were silent with respect to the language about if PRWO applied.” 

Federal agencies that helped deploy the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), did not discriminate between native-born or immigrant families. The rental assistance dollars and relief funds distributed to states were designed to stave off all evictions, and even staunchly Red states were barred from imposing a citizenship requirement.  

Yet many undocumented households never received the aid to which they were entitled. 

“Because the feds also remained silent on this, there’s been a host of confusion. And this is what I go back to: Some states are so afraid—because they’re probably feeling the after-effects of the Trump administration—that they are just imposing [restrictions] on their own,” Walz elaborated. “They’re misinterpreting the guidance that they’ve read. They think they get to define what a federal benefit is. Or, in some states, they’re saying ‘no, we were not serving immigrants.’”  

Meanwhile, Biden’s decision to waive ineligibility for certain funds has only been applied to DACA recipients, a relatively small population when compared to the overall number of economically precarious immigrants. And, even more jarring, the administration’s equitable housing proposal within the “Build Back Better Act” appears to be on the chopping block. 

The federal government’s inability to address the housing crisis isn’t just setting us up for another suffocating pandemic, it’s leaving people like Susana without even a modicum of oxygen—and exhausted with uncertainty. 

“This has impacted me a lot as an immigrant. We pay taxes, and how is it possible now that I need help, I don’t qualify for help? The companies and the landlords are saying that ‘we can wait, we can wait, we can wait,’ but what happens after?” Susana asked. 

“How will we pay once they stop offering the support? In one year or two years, when everything is over, what kind of debt will we be facing? Are they going to just keep giving us more time or are they going to be evicting people from their homes?”

Caleb Brennan

Caleb Brennan

Caleb Brennan is a reporter and writer based in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in places like The New Republic, The Nation, VICE, and The Progressive.