COVID-19 has forced our nation to reckon with many of its flawed systems. While our country is experiencing a fundamental shift toward social justice, there have been several topics needing change that many have long vocalized for, but only now are being acted upon.
One of these critical issues is housing. Many tenants across our state have lost their incomes, and Texas Housers has advocated for essential measures such as rent relief and eviction moratoriums in these times and beyond. As we eventually topple this disease, millions of low-wage workers will still not earn enough to afford their rent and remain stably housed. Coronavirus has underscored the importance of affordable housing as people are instructed to stay home and shelter in place.
Plainly stated, our country needs to invest far more into affordable housing. With respect to this dire need, the National Low Income Housing Coalition released Out of Reach 2020 this week. The report highlights the many hurdles that low-income households face, and how few affordable housing options these renters have. Both of which have been exacerbated during this global pandemic.
In Texas, it’s estimated that we have 3.7 million renter households, per 2018 ACS data. Of that 3.7 million, nearly 867,000 had extremely low incomes. That’s 23% or nearly a quarter of all Texas renters. In our state, the average renter wage is $19.56. The wage necessary to rent a 2 bedroom home at fair market rent in Texas — meaning HUD’s best estimate of what a household seeking a modest rental home in a short amount of time can expect to pay for rent and utilities in the current market — is $20.90. In Houston, a household must make $21.08 for such a home, in Dallas it is $25.27, and in Austin an earner must make $26.08.
However, the reality is that many earn the minimum wage of $7.25. This means for thousands of people in our state, many of whom are working on the frontlines of this pandemic, they must work 115 hours a week or 2.9 full time jobs to afford fair market rent for a 2 bedroom home. For a one bedroom home, this amounts to 95 hours a week or 2.4 full time jobs. In no state, metropolitan area, or county can a full-time minimum-wage worker afford a modest two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent. In 95% of counties in the US, a full-time minimum-wage worker cannot afford a one-bedroom rental home at fair market rent.
These people are risking their lives at work as our entire planet grips with this pandemic, and they often return to a severely cost-burdened home that they may not be able to afford barring one simple change in their lives. In fact, 12 of the 20 largest occupations in the United States pay less than the Housing Wage at Fair Market Rent. This includes food and beverage serving workers, retail workers, cooks and food preparers, material moving workers, motor vehicle operators, and cleaning and pest workers.
The high cost of housing is a racial justice issue as well. Black and Latino workers are overrepresented in accommodations and food services and social assistance occupations, which are industries that saw extraordinary job losses in the spring. The graph below shows the stark difference in wages between white, Black, and Latino households. If you are a Black or Latino earner, you have to be in the 70th percentile to even afford a one-bedroom at fair market rent comfortably. Across the country, 26% of white households are housing cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. This figure for Latino households is 42% and it is 44% of Black households.
Perhaps what is most notable among all of this data is that the demand for housing assistance is popular. In a recent poll commissioned by NLIHC’s Opportunity Starts at Home campaign, 87% of adults say that elected leaders should take major action to ensure everyone has stable, affordable housing during the pandemic, and 93% favor providing rental assistance for people struggling as a result of the crisis.
There is currently there is a national shortage of 7 million affordable and available homes for renters with extremely low incomes, and 28 million workers filed new unemployment claims in just the first six weeks of widespread shutdowns. This is glaring evidence that we need housing assistance now.
There are numerous ways that we can commit to affordable housing. First, in an immediate reaction to prevent a wave of evictions in the coming months, Congress must implement a national eviction moratorium for the duration of the pandemic and provide at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance to keep low-income renters stably housed. And to protect all renters after the pandemic, we need a sustained investment in programs now that serve low-wage workers and other extremely low-income renters like the National Housing Trust Fund, expanding Housing Choice Vouchers, and repairing our nation’s public housing stock.
The severe mismatch between wages and the cost of rental housing in the U.S. has caused a massive shortage of affordable homes for the lowest-income people. This current economic and public health crisis has shed light on the meager landscape of affordable housing. We need to seize this opportunity for change to prevent massive displacement and endangering countless households. Affordable housing is the practical solution.