Many of us are spending more time at home these days – working, providing childcare, foregoing gatherings of family and friends- to help protect co-workers, parents and children – everyone in our community from the Coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 experience also has put a spotlight on disparities among us: income, urban vs. rural, politics, etc. Depending on your job, financial position, age and community, COVID-19 presents a host of different risks. Our housing — its type, age, condition—and our household composition also can present a variety of challenges. Though the impact of COVID-19 is far from understood, evidence is beginning to emerge that risk is higher, and negative impacts are greater, for low-income individuals and their households.
Housing related challenges also are more prevalent among lower-income households, racial and ethnic minority groups, and renters. Housing disparities, race, and income are correlated because of a long history of systematic racism and rent-seeking in our country. Housing data from the American Community Survey and the Consolidated Housing Affordability Strategy data clearly illustrates the housing challenges and the disparities in who experiences them.
More than 15,000 Roanoke City households are housing “cost-burdened,” spending more than 30 percent of their income on shelter. Of those 15,000, nearly 50 percent are severely cost-burdened, spending more than 50 percent of their income on living accommodations. Households that are cost-burdened might have to make choices between a place to live and other needs such as healthcare, transportation, child educational enrichment, food and clothing.
Roanoke renters are far more likely to be cost-burdened than owners – 48 percent of renters are cost burdened compared to 25 percent of owners. Renters also are disproportionately cost burdened, meaning they are over-represented in the population of cost-burdened households, compared to the population at large as the following graph shows.
Renters are more likely to experience changes in housing costs since rent typically increases faster than homeowner costs, which generally increase only with insurance and tax increases. Without access to home equity wealth, renters are more financially vulnerable in the event of economic hardship.
Lower income households are more likely to experience housing cost burden, no matter whether they rent or own. “Low-income households” earn at or below 80 percent of the area’s median income- in Roanoke, that threshold is $61,350 for a four-person household. More than 60 percent of low-income households are cost burdened. Low-wage workers struggle to live and choices between housing and other necessities become tougher and more frequent, the lower their income. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, a single parent with one child, living in Roanoke must earn $25.28/hour in order to afford food, childcare, healthcare, housing and transportation. For a single parent, the minimum wage is less than the $8.13 per hour required for the family to live at the poverty line.
The housing market is tough for low-income households as well. Appropriate, affordable housing is rare, and unless low-income households are able to obtain income-restricted housing, these households must compete for housing with higher-income households. Higher-income households are more attractive to mortgage lenders and landlords, so they often get “first dibs” on housing and occupy housing units that could be affordable to households with lower incomes. As a result, many low-income households must accept housing cost-burden or substandard housing in order to obtain housing at all.
Extremely-low income households with housing cost burdens are at risk for homelessness. More than 8,000 households in Roanoke make less than or equal to 30 percent of the area median income, $26,200 for a family of four. When these households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, a single emergency expense could mean they no longer can make a house payment or rent. The majority of these households, 65 percent, spend more than 50 percent of their income for housing, leaving little for other expenses. More than 6,000 Roanoke City households are at risk for homelessness and are likely sacrificing other necessities in order to retain their homes.
Our country’s history of racism and the racism that we still grapple with today (whether personal or systemic) has linked race, income and wealth. Since income and wealth have direct implications for housing and housing challenges, it follows that racial minorities often experience housing cost burden disproportionately. The graph below shows the racial and ethnic composition of renters in the City of Roanoke compared to the racial and ethnic composition of cost-burdened renters. Black or African-American households and Hispanic households are over-represented among the population of cost-burdened renters. Further, it shows the racial and ethnic composition of city homeowners compared to the racial and ethnic composition of cost-burdened homeowners. All minority (race and ethnic) households are over-represented among the population of cost-burdened owners, and are less likely to own their home. Nonetheless, housing cost-burden and its consequences are experienced among all races and ethnicities.
Housing, among other basic necessities, is foundational for the security and opportunity of individuals and families. Yet, more than one in three households in Roanoke are cost-burdened and likely struggle to retain housing. Not only that, they sacrifice other necessities to retain housing and face future challenges as a result.
The impact of substandard, insecure, and unaffordable housing on children has been widely researched and the resulting consequences have been documented in academic literature. In addition, positive impacts of appropriate, affordable and stable housing for families and individuals also has been well documented. In order to thrive, families need stable housing. With it, they will invest in their own health and their children’s future. Without it, children experience parents’ stress and suffer from complications related to housing deficiencies, all of which have consequences for their health and performance in school, and in turn, have consequences for their educational attainment and future economic opportunity.
As a community, particularly one that is growing, we need to consider the importance of each member’s health: physical, mental and financial. Housing plays an enormous role in each of these aspects of our wellbeing. We depend on our community to keep us safe and in order for each of us to contribute to the good of the community, we must make sure that each person can retreat to a restorative place, is free from worry over displacement or homelessness, and that each person has an opportunity to build wealth. For the vast majority of Americans, that means having access to reliably supported housing and the opportunity to buy and maintain a home.
Therefore, as a community we must find ways to build a housing infrastructure and system that allows households to prosper while saving to invest in their future. That means providing income-restricted, subsidized housing for a much larger and more diverse population, and building “steps” to allow households to upgrade their housing while also saving to invest in a home that can help them to build wealth. Furthermore, we as a community must invest in removing barriers to that opportunity. We have to pay for the value derived from nice, high-performing, well-located housing for all. I think that once we stabilize our neighbors, we will find our community can stabilize and prosper.
Today, such an investment takes real dedication, creativity and political will. Together we are all struggling to get by. Many of us who live comfortably don’t make it out to public meetings to discuss the need for more affordable housing. Those who need more affordable housing may have numerous jobs and cannot make it to such meetings without jeopardizing their jobs, family and indeed, their housing. Those who feel directly threatened by a project feel compelled to attend – but won’t make time for conversation or reflection.
However, more and more people are beginning to feel insecure in their housing. More and more local governments are taking responsibility for building “steps” and breaking barriers. We have talented people with high ethical standards working “behind the scenes” in local government to support our communities and make our neighborhoods more stable and prosperous. The community’s first step should be to support them by being active and demanding appropriate, affordable housing for everyone.
Written By Mel Jones
Associate Director, Research Scientist
Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech