The blog of the Urban Institute
January 12, 2021

Five Housing Outcomes That Could Promote Long-Term Recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic

For many renter households, February could spell disaster. Although a second round of pandemic-related stimulus is on its way, the 11.4 million renter households who owe back rent could still face eviction when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) national moratorium on evictions expires at the end of January.

Current estimates suggest between 2.4 million and 5 million households are at risk of eviction, and that number may continue to grow. Certain groups, including low-income, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx households have faced disproportionate job losses because of the pandemic and are particularly vulnerable to housing insecurity because of their systematic exclusion from housing and economic opportunities. Income support and rental subsidies are essential for reducing the risk of housing instability and homelessness during and after the pandemic.

But we should aim to do more than prevent evictions, foreclosures, and homelessness. People will emerge from this economic recession deeply scathed: way below and way behind where they were before the pandemic. We should put safeguards in place now to better protect people from the next housing crisis and bolster resilience in their path to upward mobility. And temporary financial support is not enough. For households to advance beyond the inequitable, prepandemic status quo, policymakers and practitioners should create housing recovery strategies that advance holistic upward mobility.

Too often, society narrowly focuses on economic success as upward mobility’s key indicator, but a person’s power and autonomy and sense of being valued in their community are also essential. These principles should be regarded as equally important components of holistic upward mobility and should be prioritized in housing recovery policy efforts. To inform policymakers’ strategies as they consider housing policy in general, and postpandemic economic recovery in particular, we have identified five housing outcomes that affect all facets of upward mobility.

Five housing outcomes that support holistic upward mobility

The current housing policy response focuses on two outcomes: supporting housing affordability and stability. Both have crucial implications for all the components of upward mobility but are likely to fall short of fully supporting equitable housing recovery that strengthens future resiliency. We’ve identified three additional housing outcomes that policymakers and practitioners should keep in mind as they pivot from an emergency response to a housing recovery that advances holistic mobility from poverty.

  1. Housing affordability can promote multiple dimensions of mobility. Low housing costs can allow a household to accumulate savings and wealth. A high housing cost burden has been linked to psychological distress, which can inhibit a household’s power and autonomy. Rent subsidies are typically used to improve housing affordability, but tax incentives can also boost the supply of affordable housing.
  2. Housing stability encourages civic engagement and promotes economic success, power, and belonging. Frequent moves can negatively affect the financial and physical health of a household, but stability allows people to make investments in their communities, social relationships, health, and education. Rent subsidies, eviction moratoriums, and mortgage forbearance programs all encourage housing stability.
  3. Housing quality can have long-term effects on a household’s autonomy and economic success. Substandard housing can negatively affect the health and well-being of children and adults in the short- and long-term. The quality of housing can also affect energy efficiency, creating a larger economic burden for households. Building code enforcement, lead abatement programs, and energy efficiency standards can help improve housing quality outcomes.
  4. Housing that builds wealth can offer homeowners a resource for investments in education, health, and other opportunities. Protecting home equity and homeownership has implications for power and autonomy, particularly for Black, Latinx, and Native populations. Many federal, state, and local policies and programs are intended to support homeownership and home equity, and certain demonstrations and evaluations, like the MicroMortgage Marketplace, seek to expand lending and increase sustainable homeownership for low- and moderate-income households in low-cost markets across the country.
  5. Neighborhood context can influence upward mobility, with some “high-opportunity” neighborhoods offering more advantages. Although the specific ingredients that render a neighborhood “high opportunity” are still being explored, qualities that reflect a neighborhood’s ability to promote upward mobility include levels of segregation and income inequality, along with other aspects of health, employment, education, housing, and transportation. Together, a neighborhood’s set of resources, opportunities, and characteristics can either boost or inhibit upward mobility for residents. Deconcentrating and declustering lower-cost housing could expand neighborhood choices for very low–income people and their ability to move to high-opportunity neighborhoods.

Low-income households often live in housing lacking in one or more of these outcome areas. Together, this “bundle” of housing goods can significantly affect a household’s chance of upward mobility, and the direction of that effect may not be clear by examining one outcome in isolation. For example, an affordable housing unit may come at the expense of overcrowding, or a household experiencing long-term housing stability may live in an unsafe neighborhood, leaving the potential impact on their upward mobility ambiguous. Understanding the magnitude and direction of these interactions could significantly help households, practitioners, and policymakers focus on the trade-offs that are likely to yield the greatest long-term mobility benefits, but more evidence is needed.

Planning for long-term housing recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic

Housing affects a wide array of social, economic, and health outcomes, but there is a dearth of quality, affordable housing units that are also in high-quality, stable, and safe neighborhoods. Although ensuring renters and homeowners remain housed is essential, we need to look beyond these goals in the long-term.

Responses to the pandemic-induced housing crisis could focus on the immediate economic supports renters need to stay stably and affordably housed, but a recovery plan will acknowledge the full influence of housing on a household’s power and autonomy and sense of being valued in their community as drivers of the household’s upward mobility. To prioritize more equitable housing outcomes in the long-term, policymakers should consider how their proposed strategies affect each of these outcomes and then leverage forthcoming housing investments to advance holistic upward mobility.

(dan_prat/Getty Images)

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