With unemployment in the Hudson Valley much higher than it was a year ago because of the ongoing shutdown, state and federal bans on evictions imposed earlier this year have allowed many tenants to stay in their homes even if they can no longer afford the rent.
But that won’t last. Housing advocates fear a flood of evictions after state and federal moratoriums expire next month, possibly causing a large spike in homelessness in early 2021 while the pandemic still rages.
It’s another consequence of the high cost of living in Putnam and Dutchess counties, where more than 33 percent of residents were one emergency away from financial ruin even before COVID-19, according to research by the United Way.
In a series called Living on the Edge published last year, The Current reported on Highlands residents who were living on “survival budgets” despite being employed. Two in five residents of Beacon and Cold Spring, according to the data, did not have more than $400 in savings.
According to the most recent United Way report on “asset-limited, income-restrained, employed” residents, which relies on data from 2018, a family with two adults and two children in the Hudson Valley needs to earn at least $99,242 annually to get by, while a single adult must earn $35,510.
Where is ‘The Edge’?
This is what a single person in Dutchess or Putnam needs to earn annually to survive, according to the United Way. It equates to $17.55 per hour.
This is what a family with two adults and two young children in Dutchess or Putnam needs to earn annually to survive. It equates to $50.86 per hour.
Source: ALICE in New York: A Financial Hardship Study, 2020
To support those budgets, a single person would have to earn at least $17.55 an hour, far more than the $11.80 minimum wage in this part of New York state.
Beyond the ban on evictions, another buffer could disappear at the end of the year when two federal pandemic unemployment programs are scheduled to expire unless Congress acts. More than 1.9 million New York residents receive payments from the two programs, which were designed to extend benefits offered by the state.
As of September, about 11,600 people in Dutchess County and 3,800 people in Putnam were receiving state jobless benefits — far fewer than in April at the height of the shutdown but far more than in September 2019, when only 1,100 people were receiving benefits in Dutchess and 500 in Putnam.
Paying for a roof over your head, of course, is usually a large expense, eating up nearly half of the income of a single person on a survival budget in Dutchess, according to the United Way study.
That has people like Maureen Fox, chief development officer of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, concerned about bills that will come due in January.
“Although the rental moratorium is in place, it doesn’t mean you don’t ever have to pay your rent,” Fox said, noting that the moratorium on evictions is not the same as forgiveness of overdue rent. “That’s our fear — that there will be this tsunami of people who get eviction notices all at one time because they haven’t been able to pay the backlog.”
Christa Hines, executive director of Hudson River Housing, which manages affordable housing and homeless shelters in Dutchess County, said her group estimates that at least 36 percent of renters across the state are at risk of eviction.
“It’s given people false hope,” she said of the moratoriums. “They’re using that [unpaid rent] money to pay for other things, and they’re getting deeper and deeper in the hole. That’s the case even if their income hasn’t changed because of COVID.”
Homelessness in the area is already on the rise, Hines said. The Dutchess County shelter in Poughkeepsie has been averaging about 100 people a night, up about 20 percent from a year ago, and she estimates that around 20 percent come from the Beacon and Wappingers Falls area.
“Anecdotally, we’ve always known that some people live precariously, with family or friends or couch-surfing,” Hines said. “The pandemic presented a lot of challenges with that. People were scared to open up their homes as much as they might have in the past.”
The groups suspect the Dutchess facility is serving clients from Putnam County, as well, which doesn’t have any shelters. “Because our shelter provides good services and we don’t turn anyone away, we wonder if folks come up here from other counties,” Hines said. “It’s something that we’re looking at.”
At the start of the shutdown in March, Hudson River Housing began dispensing $90,000 it had received from a federal grant to help people with their rent, Hines said. Unfortunately, they had $350,000 worth of requests.
Based on data collected by the organization, most renters in Dutchess are “severely cost-burdened,” which means they spend more than half of their income on housing. Renters would need to earn an average wage of $26.87 per hour, or work 2.3 minimum-wage jobs, to afford the average two-bedroom apartment.
At the same time, the vacancy rate in Dutchess apartment complexes was 1.5 percent last year, the lowest it’s been since 2000. (In Beacon, the rate was zero percent.) In addition, the median home price in the county jumped by more than 20 percent between 2015 and 2019.
After the shutdown began, food pantries in the Highlands began to serve a growing number of people.
Amy Richter, an assistant at the Philipstown Food Pantry in Cold Spring, which is open Saturday mornings, said it has seen up to a 150 percent increase in demand some weeks. Lines have formed hours before the 9 a.m. opening as people try to get the first crack at limited supplies of fruits and vegetables, although pantry organizers say they have discouraged that.
“What is striking to me are the people who come who I always thought were in my peer group,” Richter said, referring to middle- and higher-income levels. “It’s scary. Many, many are those who lost jobs. What we hadn’t seen before was a lot of single men. People in the arts have lost jobs, and we’ve seen them here.
“People are doubling up,” she said. “There are extended families living together who weren’t before.”
She said the donations to the pantry so far have kept up with the demand.
“We’ve had a huge influx of money and food items from the community,” Richter said. “We are able to serve everyone who comes, and then some. But about 70 percent of our clients are Latino, and we’re constantly running out of things like white rice.”
Because of financial donations and the work of the Philipstown Town Board, the pantry was able to distribute gift cards from Foodtown in Cold Spring, as well as fresh and packaged foods.
“People were hurting so much that they began to cry when I handed them the gift cards,” she said.