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OPINION: Hiding in plain sight: Housing insecurity in the US

Wednesday, 15 July 2020 19:10 GMT

An old apartment building supplying low rent housing is seen in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., August 27, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Despite low eviction and foreclosure filings, surveys are sounding the alarm: a quarter of Americans can’t pay for housing

Yuliya Panfil is director of the Future of Property Rights Program at New America, a U.S. based think tank

Tim Robustelli is a policy analyst for the Future of Property Rights Program

Housing advocates throughout the United States were quick to warn that the COVID-19 pandemic would unleash a tsunami of housing loss. As stay-at-home orders and economic shutdowns proliferated, many predicted that unprecedented job loss would lead to a surge of evictions and mortgage foreclosures.

Thus far, many at-risk Americans haven’t lost their homes. According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, eviction filings in various U.S. cities are actually down compared to this same time last year, despite the fact that eviction moratoriums in many states have now expired. Mortgage foreclosures are decreasing significantly, as well.

These trends are quite encouraging at first glance, and it appears that stopgap policies, such as expanded unemployment benefits, emergency rental assistance, and mortgage forbearance, are successfully keeping Americans housed.

But these statistics aren’t telling the whole story.

According to new data released today by the U.S. Census, more than a quarter of American households say they are housing insecure. The data was collected through the Census’ weekly Household Pulse Survey, which asks respondents if they’ve missed last month’s rent or mortgage payment, and if they’ll likely be unable to pay next month. For some groups, such as Black and Latino renters, more than 40 percent of households now feel housing insecure. 

That’s up from 13% last year, based on a Gallup poll conducted in partnership with the Global Property Rights Index (PRIndex). That poll asked Americans if they thought it likely they would lose their homes in the next 5 years.

Herein lies the advantage of opinion polls like the ones conducted by PRIndex and the Census Bureau:  They’re able to look around the corner, portending events that have not yet come to pass. When read correctly they can function as an early warning system.

It makes perfect sense that Americans’ housing insecurity has doubled over the last year, , even if eviction notices haven’t begun flowing yet. Expanded social benefits will end this summer, stimulus checks were mailed months ago, and many remaining renter protections are set to soon expire. And at least in the United States, the public health and economic crises don’t appear to be going away anytime soon: COVID-19 cases are rising to unprecedented levels, the unemployment rate is the highest since World War II, and governors are ordering businesses to once again close their doors. Given these grave stressors, it’s unsurprising that whereas a year ago only one in seven Americans thought they could lose a home in the next five years, now one in four think they might lose their home imminently.

The polls’ emphasis on insecurity is critical, because it’s often too late to help individuals and families after housing loss occurs. Eviction or mortgage foreclosure can lead to financial ruin as credit ratings plummet and savings accounts are drained. The stress of housing loss is overwhelming, often leading to job loss or the disruption of children’s’ education. An eviction filing forever stamped on someone’s rental history usually results in fewer housing options, located in less-desirable neighborhoods. Worse, social service providers can find it difficult to locate displaced families and lend a hand. For all of these reasons, reactive responses following home loss simply aren’t good enough.

The good news is that the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey can serve as a high-level predictive model, a canary in the coal mine for housing advocates and decision-makers, especially in cities showing widespread insecurity like Houston and Miami.

Armed with this data, policymakers can proactively help millions of American households stay put. Not only that, the demographic breakdowns in the Pulse Survey can help city leaders understand which communities are most at-risk of significant displacement and target resources accordingly. And advocates now have added ammunition to pressure Congress to pass the HEROES Act, which includes an additional $100 billion in rental assistance and a broad, uniform moratorium on evictions.

But, for these early warning systems to work policymakers must be willing to learn and react. In the United States we have seen a shocking refusal to listen to science. Perhaps, at least, our leaders will be willing to listen to the people.