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Nation’s housing stressed by trio of factors during 2020

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Not surprisingly, the 2020 rendition of The State of the Nation’s Housing contained plenty of grim news, but authors suggested there is no better time for policymakers to “seize the moment by framing a new, comprehensive housing strategy that will reduce inequalities and advance the longstanding goal of a decent, affordable home in a suitable living environment for all.”

The report delves into the upheaval stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, but also covers social unrest from racial injustice, and devastation from climate change.

In a news release coinciding with its report, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) suggested the nation’s housing challenges have never been so evident – “particularly the lack of affordable rental housing, unequal access to good-quality homes, and the vulnerability of much of the housing stock to natural disasters.

For renters, affordability worsened. As of late September, renters earning less than $25,000 a year were much more likely to report lost employment income since March, when shutdowns started. Roughly one in five renters earning less than $25,000 also said they were behind on rent.

“So far, state and federal moratoriums have slowed evictions,” stated Chris Herbert, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies. Without additional federal aid, Herbert said many households that missed payments may be unable to cover their back rents “and will find themselves on the brink of eviction and at risk of homelessness.”

Renters were not the only ones who faced adversity because of the pandemic. Among homeowners, low income and households of color have taken a disproportionate hit, according to the JCHS report. Among all homeowners, 36% reported losing income between March and September, but the shares were as high as 44% among owners earning less than $25,000, 41% among Black owners, and 49% among Hispanic owners. Similarly, while 7% of white homeowners were delinquent on mortgage payments in late September, the share was significantly higher among owners who are Hispanic (18%), Black (17%) and Asian (12%).

The State of Nation’s Housing report also addressed persistent racial disparities in housing markets.

“Widespread calls for racial justice have pointed out the high degree of residential segregation and economic inequality that still exists in the US,” stated Daniel McCue, a senior research associate at the Center. “In fact, the sharp racial disparities in housing are both a cause and a consequence of other social inequalities.”

Nearly two-thirds of the poor Black, Hispanic, and Native American populations live in communities with poverty rates above 20%, about twice the rate of poor white Americans, according to the report. The Harvard researchers said they have far higher cost-burden rates and account for a disproportionately large share of the homeless population. Additionally, they wrote, the Black-white homeownership gap is larger than it has been in decades at fully 31 percentage points.

Also contributing to the year’s housing challenges was climate change. The U.S. had experienced 16 distinct billion-dollar natural disasters in 2020 (as of September) totaling nearly $50 billion. Climate change is also blamed for adding to the number of low-income households facing energy insecurity, notably during the record summer heat when the need for air conditioning was extreme.

Reflecting on the report’s findings, the report’s authors wrote: “The economic dislocation caused by the pandemic has underscored, perhaps as never before, the fundamental importance of secure, adequate, and affordable housing for all. It has also revealed just how many millions of cost-burdened households are facing housing insecurity. Indeed, those with good-quality, appropriate housing have been more likely to maintain their health and financial security this year, while those without adequate resources have faced not just the risk of eviction or foreclosure, but greater exposure to life-threatening illness from COVID-19.”

Herbert said a new national housing policy, to be effective, would set out the appropriate roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments in meeting the country’s needs. “Among other things, it would establish funding sources and distribution channels for subsidies, create incentives for efficient private production of housing through regulatory and tax structures, and ensure the availability and affordability of mortgage financing as well as the stability of the housing finance system.”

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