The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many of the systematic inequalities that exist in our country. As communities mobilized to distribute resources and build mutual aid networks, elected officials have been slow to address the growing needs of their constituents. Little has been done to counter the economic fallout from the pandemic, and what now looms is a housing and eviction crisis.
The communities that face the highest risk of eviction and homelessness are also those hit hardest by the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, renters tended to have lower household incomes and spent a greater share of their paychecks on housing. Half of renters spend 30 percent of their incomes on housing, with the poorest spending more than half . Access to affordable housing has become a growing problem as the demand continues to increase and the number of available units remains low. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition found a shortage of about seven million affordable homes for the lowest-income renters. Of those who are eligible for federal rental assistance, only one in five receive it . Renters are also more likely to work in the service industry, and as many businesses stay closed or operate at reduced hours, workers are left with smaller paychecks or unemployment . Even if someone can work, they may not be able to make rent if they have to miss work if they or a loved one becomes ill.
In March, Congress passed the CARES Act, which mandated a 120-day moratorium on evictions that protected renters until August 25. By July, 32 percent of Americans reported that they were unable to make a full rent payment . Housing advocates pushed to extend local and state eviction moratoriums and create relief programs for renters, but August came and went without action in most places. In September, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) responded by issuing a national moratorium that would protect renters through the end of the year by stopping eviction proceedings. However, the policy has not been fairly applied to renters across the country, with some judges allowing eviction cases to move forward . Furthermore, the CDC’s policy requires eligible renters to show substantial loss of household income, the inability to pay full rent, and an effort to pay partial rent . The new moratorium also does not relieve renters of their ultimate obligation to pay their rent back once the policy expires.
The lack of action on this looming housing crisis is not surprising. The United States has always prioritized the livelihoods and wealth of white households. For centuries, owning property has allowed white families to create and pass on generational wealth. It is no coincidence that the current crisis has continued to benefit white households while people of color face higher risks for eviction .
The history of institutional racism in the United States starts with colonization and policies such as the 1840 Indian Removal Act and Dawes Act, which forcibly displaced indigenous people in the Southeast to make room for white settlers . Between 1945 and 1968, the United States government stopped recognizing more than 100 tribal nations and ‘replaced’ these areas under state jurisdiction. This forced displacement pushed some indigenous people to urban centers, where they faced economic hardship and housing instability.
In 1917, in Buchanan v. Warley the Supreme Court found that race-based zoning was unconstitutional . In response, cities relocated segregated schools to undesirable areas, creating de-facto zoning segregation, which forced Black families to move. During the Great Depression, the establishment of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the still operational Federal Housing Administration (FHA) further cemented racist policies that disenfranchised Black households . The HOLC created maps to access the risk of mortgage refinancing that was in part based on a neighborhood’s racial composition, and designated non-white neighborhoods as ‘hazardous.’ This process, now known as redlining, perpetuated the false notion that people of color were financially risky and a threat to local property values. The FHA, which worked with the HOLC, promoted racial segregation by shunning investments in neighborhoods of color. Between 1934 and 1962, only 2 percent of the $120 billion in FHA loans were given to non-white families .
These discriminatory policies continued throughout the century and prevented people of color, and specifically Black families, from accumulating wealth through homeownership. The Housing Act of 1937 and new government infrastructure projects pushed low-income housing to inner cities . The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, was intended to help soldiers returning from war but allowed banks to discriminate against Black veterans and deny them home loans . Even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Black Americans continued to experience housing inequalities. In contrast, with government subsidies and new highway systems, white commuters were able to travel to urban centers for work and prosper in the suburbs.
By the 2000s, centuries of racial discrimination and inequity in housing had already impacted generations of Americans. The new era brought on gentrification, which meant affluent people were now moving into historically low-income neighborhoods to buy and renovate homes and open businesses resulting in increased housing values and higher rents that current residents can’t afford. For communities of color, this wave of gentrification meant that the places they had been displaced to during the 1900s were now becoming too expensive to live in. Lawmakers could have responded by expanding affordable housing or implementing rent control, but did not. Gentrification has had a major impact on many cities, including Washington, D.C. where Black residents declined from 71 percent to just 48 percent between 1970 and 2015 .
Access to safe and affordable housing is a basic human right. For communities to thrive and grow, families must have access to stable housing. Without it, a child’s education is more likely to be disrupted, it can be more difficult to access healthcare, and more . This is without the added chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, including the ongoing wildfires on the West coast, and anticipated winter weather. When evictions begin, families may be pushed into shared housing or homeless shelters, which put them at risk during the pandemic. As communities continue to face brutality, racist harassment, and murder by police, we must also consider the possibility of violence and trauma when local sheriffs’ departments are left to carry out evictions.
An eviction and housing crisis is looming. Historically, even when the economy bounces back, racial inequality in income and housing inequities do not go away. Left unaddressed, the housing crisis will compound with an unemployment crisis, a homelessness crisis, and a health crisis and push the poorest further into poverty.