Lack of healthcare access, unemployment rates soaring as high as 14.7 percent, a bumpy transition into remote education, and a national reckoning with institutionalized racism—these are just a few of the many challenges the United States has faced over the past months. While for many people these events seem completely out of the blue, in actuality the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the inequities that were already deeply entrenched in American society.
Above all, a new housing crisis has emerged from our nation’s historic racism and classism. Lost income and new healthcare expenses from seeking testing and treatment for COVID-19 have inhibited people’s ability to pay rent and mortgages. Our housing insecure population does not have the privilege to safely shelter in place, especially as many affordable housing and services are being delayed due to stay-at-home orders and bureaucratic inefficiencies. Governments at all levels went on recess and took months to figure out procedures which delayed the implementation of policies into late April and May.
“Even though the housing crisis is being exacerbated by [COVID-19], affordable housing has always been a challenge, especially in Connecticut,” Nadja Umlauf ‘22 said in an interview with The Politic. Umlauf, last year’s project head for the Yale Undergraduate Legal Aid Association’s (YULAA) Partnership for Strong Communities Project, worked with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center to compile a database on different municipalities’ zoning codes. The information her team collected was utilized to support legislation to build more affordable housing in Connecticut suburbs.
They identified the most prevalent issues related to the varying definition of “single-family” zoning, which covers over 75 percent of American neighborhoods. Often in Connecticut’s majority white suburban areas, a “single-family” would only include blood relatives, blocking non-traditional family structures, such as those with non-biological children or multi-family homes. This widespread single-family zoning is also responsible for housing shortages and reduced housing affordability because it only allows single-family homes to be built, blocking developers from building apartment buildings and duplexes.
Specifically in New Haven, Dixwell, hailed as “the epitome of the city’s supposed crime-ridden seediness,” is facing its own affordability challenge. Many developers are going into Dixwell through Yale-affiliated projects, which are raising concerns about skyrocketing property values. With 30 percent of Dixwell residents living below the poverty line, this gentrification has pros and cons. While it could provide revitalization that has the potential to create new jobs for the community, there is simultaneously a loss of neighborhood culture and increased costs of living that could push current residents out.
This isn’t just an issue in Yale’s backyard—nationwide urban and suburban areas alike suffer from deep inequities in housing policy. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies’ 2018 report, the number of renter households paying at least 30 percent of their monthly income for housing and utilities increased to 20.8 million. In the same year, one in four renters spent more than half of their incomes on housing. In terms of demographics, from 2004 to 2018, 76 percent of renter household growth, the increase in renter population by unit, is from nonwhite households. That growth is troubling when coupled with the Federal Reserve data from 2019 that shows two in five Americans and three in five renters could not come up with $400 for an emergency. Even with stimulus checks and other government subsidies, losing a stream of income would be detrimental, especially to low-income BIPOC tenants’ ability to pay rent.
The federal government hasn’t helped these existing problems. On July 23, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson announced the rollback of an Obama-era implementation of the Affirmatively Fair Housing Rule, that held localities accountable for using federal funding to address racial discrimination. Considered a political move to win suburban “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) votes for the 2020 election, this rollback will dramatically decrease federal government support and enforcement for affordable housing and less strict eviction policies, in addition to disincentivizing the enactment of other policies that combat institutionalized racism.
For tenants and homeowners, affording rent and mortgage payments has become and even more critical struggle. Over 25 million unemployed Americans, with lost jobs due to COVID-19, have collected unemployment benefits from the CARES Act, but federal monetary relief and the federal moratorium on evictions expired at the end of July. The moratorium had been in place since March 18, protecting both tenants and Federal Housing Authority-insured mortgages. Federal unemployment was also enhanced by $600 per monthly payment, however, that has since been reduced to $400. This lack of support leaves tenants and homeowners alike without protection to keep their housing.
With federal housing relief programs expiring, state and local governments have taken various approaches to support tenants. San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston sponsored a local ordinance permanently banning evictions for missed rent payments due to COVID-19 related reasons through the city’s eviction moratorium (currently until August 31). It also blocks landlords from charging late fees or interest on these missed payments, as well as requiring landlords to go to small claims court to sue for back rent. Hailed by San Francisco’s progressive wing, it faces opposition from landlords and the real estate lobby. To appease them, Preston added a clause to direct part of the revenue from November 2020’s Proposition I, the Real Estate Transfer Tax, to landlord assistance.
The major flaw in San Francisco’s moratorium is that it doesn’t completely cancel rent —it’s still the tenant’s responsibility to pay eventually. However, other policymakers are leading the charge to cancel rent completely. At the national level, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), alongside fellow progressive Democrats, sponsored the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, which, according to the legislative summary, would “create a payment cancellation for all rent payments and primary residence mortgage payments for the duration of the current national emergency declaration.” It also includes a provision to establish a relief fund to cover mortgage payments for landlords losing income from canceled payments. If passed, the housing market could stabilize and low-income families would be able to stay in their homes. Despite this being introduced back in April, it has not yet been referred to a House committee. It lacks co-sponsors from the Democratic establishment, and it would be a challenging policy to pass through the Republican-controlled Senate.
In New York, the state legislature passed the Emergency Rent Relief Act of 2020, providing $100 million in vouchers to pay rent for residents who lost income due to COVID-19. This funding, from the federal CARES Act, will be offered to New York residents earning less than 80 percent of the area’s median income both now and before March 7. Unlike other rent relief bills, which include separate funding or taxes to support landlords, the vouchers are given directly to the eligible resident’s landlord. While this protects New York’s most vulnerable residents, it is dependent on federal funding. Currently, New Yorkers can receive assistance for rent missed up to July 31, yet is unlikely to be extended with no new federal relief bill in sight.
But relief isn’t enough. The economic recession is expected to continue, its effects rippling for years, especially for lower-income residents. Less than half of jobs paying $20 per hour have returned to the job market, while many high wage jobs are fully back. Now, we need to be thinking about how to protect tenants and build affordable housing throughout the country, even in turbulent times of economic growth.
Vivian Zhao ‘24, in an interview with The Politic, reported that in her suburb of Chicago, “Even though there’s definitely a lack of affordable housing…I don’t think that creating affordable housing is as big a priority in residents’ eyes…because it might not affect as many people [directly].” In Zhao’s hometown of Naperville, even though the City Council is prioritizing affordable housing, residents are concerned about maintaining neighborhood character and the creation of more competition for the municipality’s high quality of living and education.
Contrary to that point, Bridgette Russell, Managing Director of the HomeOwnership Center at Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven, provided her own insight into why suburban residents opposed affordable housing developments: “I don’t think when people think about affordable housing they think about a lovely single-family subdivision, condominium complex, or beautifully restored or newly constructed two to three-unit multi-family owner-occupied homes. By breaking the barriers of stereotypical images of affordable housing through community education, these suburban communities could become more welcoming to bringing in affordable housing.”
While the traditional picture of urban housing is often in the form of high-density buildings and single-room occupancy units (SROs), Russell offers a new perspective to consider that might make affordable housing more appealing to NIMBY communities. Above all, we need to ensure all new developments include affordable housing and streamline the process for residents to apply, as well as protect existing homes that hold multigenerational families. With a nationwide movement toward affordable housing, in urban areas and suburbs alike, we can finally make progress toward ending housing insecurity and the racial and class inequities that come with it.
The nation is still in desperate need of housing protections. As of August 19, COVID-19 cases are still rising in many states, including California and Florida. With over 5.5 million cases, 47, 408 in the past days, and vaccines still in trials, COVID-19 is nowhere near over. Local, state, and federal policies around housing relief all differ, but there is one question they all must consider. Will our legislators affirm housing is a human right, or will they leave our most vulnerable residents without the support to keep it?