I didn't think about housing and land much before I joined New America.
Sure, I looked for an apartment within walking distance of the Metro and a Trader Joe’s when moving to D.C., and kept homeownership as a far-off goal in the back of my mind. But it never really clicked that housing stability is a fragile thing in the United States, dependent on access to affordable childcare and medical services, reliable public transportation, and a good-paying job.
But housing took on a whole new meaning when COVID-19 swept across the globe, resulting in the shuttering of businesses and lockdown orders throughout the United States.
Our apartments, condos, and homes became safe havens from a frightening new virus, a place to hunker down and look forward to better days. Bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms were transformed into offices, classrooms, and gyms. And as the pandemic dragged on, more Americans began to realize that a safe home and workspace wasn’t something to take for granted.
Before March 2020, traditionally marginalized communities—single Black mothers, immigrants, and trailer park residents, among many others—often experienced housing loss out of sight. Works such as Evicted and The Color of Law would briefly remind mainstream audiences of the stark inequities within U.S. housing, but displacement was rarely front page news.
COVID-19 changed the conversation, because housing instability became a significant issue within the larger national crisis. As the economy plunged due to shutdowns, the United States experienced an unemployment rate unseen since the Great Depression, disproportionately impacting low-wage workers. Millions of households who were barely scraping by before the pandemic woke up in early April with no income, little savings, and rent due at the end of the month.
Crowds from San Francisco to New York rallied to cancel rent. Stories filled national papers about wage workers—laid off from Disney World, Pike Place Market, and Bourbon Street bars—struggling to pay their landlords. The CARES Act allotted tens of billions towards federal housing aid, a notoriously underfunded sector. And to nearly everyone’s surprise, the CDC declared a nationwide moratorium on evictions, citing housing stability as a matter of public health.
The emphasis on housing was unmistakable amid the pandemic, and this focus was only sharpened by the renewed national discussion on racial inequities after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. Admittedly, housing has always been tied to racial and social justice, and there’s been increased dialogue on redlining, Black land loss, and issues surrounding heirs property over the past few years. But this link wasn’t readily apparent to many white Americans before last May, not having experienced such discrimination based on race. The past summer’s protests compelled many of these individuals to more directly confront the ugly history of U.S. housing.
Housing insecurity and injustice existed well before COVID-19. Yet 2020 has spotlighted a failing American housing system, especially for low-income and minority communities, and my work on housing instability and displacement now feels more urgent than ever. Back rent was piled up to $70 billion according to December 2020 estimates, and February 2021 data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 31 percent of surveyed Americans believe that an eviction or a foreclosure is somewhat or very likely in the next two months. It’s doubtful that the additional tens of billions in rental aid from Congress is anywhere close to enough.
So how can we make sense of these unprecedented levels of housing instability?
Any fixes should be data driven, to address both the immediate consequences of COVID-19 and lasting structural issues. As my colleagues and I have shown, housing loss persistently affects the same communities, and by mapping and analyzing eviction and foreclosure data, we can better understand where home loss is usually most acute and who experiences displacement. When this information is shared with decision-makers, we know that it can lead to more targeted interventions and more effective allocation of resources.
Long-term, the issue of displacement isn’t going anywhere, and it’s my hope that a new appreciation for stable housing translates into policy reform. Better pay, a wider social safety net, and stronger tenants’ rights will go a long way in keeping people housed, by helping to ease the financial and legal burdens that low-income households experience every day. And, while much easier said than done, all levels of government should aim to increase homeownership, dramatically expand aid programs such as Section 8, and build more affordable housing, linked to good jobs, schools, and grocery stores via public transportation.
My sister Molly called me on a workday last December. I was expecting a quick question about what to get Dad for Christmas. Instead, she wanted to chat about evictions, affordable housing, and “Not in My Backyard” opposition. The COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing short of tragic, for myriad reasons. But I believe that it’s also helped many Americans better recognize what’s really important for our country—and that includes a safe home for everyone.