On any given night, there are over half a million people in the United States who experience homelessness. Of that number, over 50,000 are family households. About 17 percent of the homeless population are considered chronically homeless individuals (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2020). Periods of homelessness often have serious and lasting effects on personal development, health, and well-being.
The generally accepted definition of housing affordability is no more than 30 percent of monthly income going toward housing costs. Families or individuals who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered “cost burdened” and can have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, medical care, and saving for the future. Almost half of renter households and 21 percent of owner households are cost burdened, with Latino and Black households experiencing higher cost burdens (Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 2020).
This situation is further concerning when we consider that the multigenerational households that are overcrowded spaces which are vectors for the spread of COVID-19. Given that the COVID-related economic crisis will likely continue to lead to high eviction rates, the number of homeless families and individuals increase.
The physical environment of most homeless shelters makes those in poor health and those with disabling conditions susceptible to the COVID-19 virus. However, it is the combination of the following characteristics that make this a high-risk group:
- Poor health: High rates of chronic medical conditions, behavioral health conditions, infectious illnesses, acute illnesses, and exposure to elements (e.g. hypothermia, violence)
- Large congregate settings: Shelters, public transportation, soup kitchens, health clinics and many other service venues where this population receives care are large, crowded congregate settings.
- An aging population: Many people experiencing homelessness are older, have limited mobility, and have even higher rates of poor health.
COVID-19 Housing Crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of housing insecurity and homelessness. Nationally the rental market is beginning to see the culmination of what many experts have predicted, namely, the ever-growing number of renters who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Even worse, the national rental industry in danger of collapsing because of non-payments of rent. A second crisis is therefore anticipated due to the loss of real estate tax revenue to municipalities, resulting in cuts to the budgets of counties, cities, and school districts.
Our nation may be facing the most severe housing crisis in its history. In the absence of robust and swift intervention, an estimated 30 to 40 million people in America could be at risk of eviction in the next several months (The Aspen Institute, 2020). Many property owners, who lack the credit or financial ability to cover rental payment in arrears, will struggle to pay their mortgages and property taxes and maintain properties. The COVID-19 housing crisis has sharply increased the risk of foreclosure and bankruptcy, especially among small property owners; long-term harm to renter families and individuals; disruption of the affordable housing market; and destabilization of communities across the country.
Given that pandemic-driven job losses are exacerbated by the recent expiration of pandemic unemployment benefits, coupled with 2020 delays in the provision of relief packages, unemployed renters are at an even greater risk of financial crises leading to eviction.
The National Low-Income Housing Coalition (2021) estimates that Congress must allocate at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance to stave off evictions and possible homelessness.
Racial Disparities and Impacts
COVID-19 struck when 20.8 million renter households (47.5 percent of all renter households) were already cost-burdened, according to 2018 numbers. Rental cost burden is defined as households who pay over 30 percent of their income towards rent (The Aspen Institute, 2020). The pandemic has placed even greater numbers of people at risk of displacement for the first time in their lives. The situation has been particularly dire for Black and Latino households, which are disproportionately affected by job loss and infection rates. Racial and economic inequities are deeply rooted in housing segregation and discrimination. Presently, 25 percent of African American families and over 16 percent of Hispanic families live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty compared with only 7 percent of white families (Opportunity Starts at Home, 2020). The Aspen Institute (2020) further finds that:
- Communities of color are twice as likely to be renters and are disproportionately likely to be low-income households that carry a high rental cost burden.
- People of color, particularly Black and Latinx populations, constitute approximately 80 percent of people at risk of eviction.
- Black households are more than twice as likely as white households to be evicted.
- A recent analysis in Milwaukee found that women from Black neighborhoods made up only 9.6 percent of the city’s population but accounted for 30 percent of evicted tenants.
The Centers for Disease Control in 2020 issued an order to temporarily halt residential evictions in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. This rent moratorium has been extended through January 31, 2021. Given the scope of the pandemic, further extensions will be necessary.
NASW calls on national leaders to:
- Protect and expand the national Housing Trust Fund.
- Sustain Housing First as a primary policy objective.
- Prioritize employment initiatives targeted to homeless people.
- Preserve and increase resources for federal affordable housing programs.
- Ensure protections for low-income renters.
- Promote equitable access to affordable housing and opportunity.