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February 9, 2021

The State of the Nation’s Housing in 2020

Image of several multistory apartment buildings.The most recent edition of the annual State of the Nation's Housing report, compiled by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, examines how the events of 2020 accelerated longstanding trends in the nation's housing and exacerbated existing inequalities. Credit: georgeclerk/istockphoto.com

For more than 30 years, the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University (JCHS) has compiled an annual State of the Nation’s Housing report that reviews present housing conditions in the United States and analyzes long-term trends. The report’s latest edition reveals how the events of a tumultuous year have shifted and, in some cases, amplified existing realities concerning how people in the nation are housed. On November 19, 2020, JCHS held a virtual symposium to explore some of the details and implications of the report’s findings. Moderated by Wall Street Journal reporter Nicole Friedman, speakers included Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; Toby Bozzuto, president and chief executive officer of The Bozzuto Group; Chris Herbert, managing director of JCHS; and Marietta Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of NeighborWorks America.

Major Events in 2020 and Their Impact on Housing

This year’s report finds that many longstanding features of housing in the U.S. have not fundamentally changed, with major events such as extreme weather conditions and the coronavirus pandemic accelerating existing trends and exacerbating existing inequalities. Renter cost burdens, which were already high as the year began, continued their upward trend, impacting renters higher on the income scale as earnings failed to keep pace with rising rents. As in previous years, more than four-fifths of households earning less than $25,000 were at least moderately cost burdened. The report found that the pandemic has worsened this situation; more than half of the nation’s lowest-income earners have lost wages since the pandemic began, and approximately 20 percent of all renters have fallen behind on their rental payments.

Noting the national conversation on persistent racial inequality, the report points out that the gap between white and black homeownership reached 31 percentage points in 2020, the largest since 1983. The pandemic threatens to widen this gap further; the share of white homeowners who are behind on their mortgage payments is 7 percent, whereas the percentage of African-American and Hispanic homeowners were 2.5 times higher.

Bozzuto echoed the report’s focus on the challenges that climate change, racial inequality, and the pandemic are posing to ensuring safe and stable housing for all Americans. The report discussed how the increasing severity of natural disasters is leading to greater destruction and higher housing and infrastructure costs. At a more modest level, the report notes that more extreme summer heat is making low-income households “energy insecure” as energy-intensive and costly air conditioning becomes increasingly necessary for health.

Efforts and Challenges

Daniel McCue, the senior research associate for JCHS who presented the report’s findings, made the case for assistance programs that can ameliorate the housing-related fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic downturn. McCue pointed to pandemic aid such as eviction moratoria that can help protect struggling families at risk of eviction and homelessness. The report also cited foreclosure moratoria, stimulus payments, and rental assistance as tools that can effectively keep people housed. Bottoms discussed efforts by the city of Atlanta to deal with the unfolding consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. The city suspended water payments; extended food giveaway programs, especially for seniors and for families who ordinarily rely on public schools to provide some meals for their children; and combined CARES Act funding with local funds to increase rental assistance.

Rodriguez cautioned that insufficiently coordinated responses to the pandemic could make the fallout worse. According to Rodriguez, her network’s member organizations are reporting an increased demand for their services (such as assisting with food insecurity or rental insecurity) while they themselves are facing unexpected expenses for more frequent cleaning and personal protective equipment. Three-quarters of NeighborWorks affiliates report hearing from homeowners that they are or are about to become delinquent. Half of those who are reporting difficulty with housing payments are unaware of available support programs, blunting their potential impact. Panelists noted that, unlike the foreclosure crisis that accompanied the Great Recession, the unfolding housing crisis has thus far been primarily, although not exclusively, a crisis for renters. This landscape presents a unique challenge for policymakers, according to Herbert, who contrasts the existing infrastructure tying homeowners to institutions, primarily through lenders and servicers, with the lack of any similar infrastructure for renters. These headwinds are also affecting local governments, according to Bottoms. Although Atlanta has taken emergency action to deal with the fallout from the pandemic, the city’s longer-term housing solutions have been put at risk, with Bottoms describing how an affordable housing bond measure has been delayed as the city assesses its changed financial situation.

The report notes a lack of progress in addressing housing affordability nationally, showing that federal housing assistance as a percentage of overall federal expenditure has declined over the past two decades even as the number of cost-burdened households has risen by 6 million over the same timeframe. Panelists agreed on the need for action at all levels, with Herbert underscoring how the pandemic has crystalized the importance of ensuring safe and affordable access to housing for everyone.

 
 
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