The United States’ housing crisis is not new.
Homelessness has increased in recent years, and a growing number of Americans reported even before the coronavirus pandemic that they were housing insecure. Now, under the weight of the pandemic, surveys suggest that 30 percent of Americans missed their housing payments in June.
As COVID-19 has increased the stress on housing security, it also has exposed and exacerbated fragility in the economy. While residents in many states — including Washington — have been protected from eviction, that is merely a temporary respite that transfers the stress to landlords and mortgage holders. If they are not getting paid, it creates a domino effect.
A new Out of Reach report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition sheds some light on the issue in Clark County. “The pandemic is exacerbating all these challenges that existed before COVID-19,” said Kate Budd, executive director of the local Council for the Homeless and board member at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, which helped release the report. “It’s just another good reminder that those, especially those with lower incomes, are on the edge of stability.”
Using Fair Market Rents compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the report claims that a Clark County resident would need to earn an hourly wage of $22.92 while working full-time in order to afford a studio apartment at $1,192 a month. For a two-bedroom apartment, at $1,495 a month, they would need a wage of $28.75.
Lyn Ayers, secretary at the Clark County Rental Association, told The Columbian those numbers are not realistic. “In Clark County, we don’t see any rents that high,” he said.
That might be. But a renter working full-time earning the minimum wage of $13.50 an hour would need to find an apartment at $702 a month in order to avoid spending more than 30 percent of their salary on housing.
Nationally, a survey of low- to moderate-income households, conducted by the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, found that individuals are facing increased hardships such as evictions, delayed rent or mortgage payments, or unexpected utility payments and home repairs during the pandemic. And an economist from Columbia University asserts that the pandemic could increase homelessness by 40 percent by the end of the year.
In Vancouver, voters in 2016 approved an Affordable Housing Fund for building and renovating rental units while also providing rental assistance. But rental increases continue to outpace wage increases.
In March 2019, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University reported that only a handful of the largest metropolitan areas had housing markets that would be considered “healthy.” The report read: “After adjusting for inflation over time, the future of the American Dream seems rather gloomy: Median home prices increased 121 percent nationwide since 1960, but median household income only increased 29 percent.”
Emerging from that gloom will require increased housing availability to meet the demands of increased population. It also will require governments, from the federal level down, to incentivize development of residences for low- to middle-income households.
That is the long-term view. For the short term, the Brookings Institution paints a dire picture: “Experiences with evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs are likely to increase rapidly … across the country.”