Many city and state governments have issued stay-at-home or equivalent orders for their residents to slow the spread of COVID-19, and many private companies have instructed nonessential employees to work from home. Policymakers are still debating a national version of a stay-at-home mandate, but people are already living the effects of these orders.
Along with the economic devastation, the pandemic is highlighting the plight of households in precarious—and potentially precarious—housing situations. As Urban Institute colleagues have noted, staying at home is not an option for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. And it won’t be an option for those who could lose their homes after current rental eviction moratoria and mortgage forbearance rules end and checks via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act stop.
But stay-at-home orders also pose a unique health challenge for families living in substandard housing—a small but persistent problem across the country, despite the overall good quality of most American homes. These homes include those that have fallen into disrepair because of lack of investment, as well as those damaged by disasters. Because staying at home is the best chance to slow the pandemic’s spread, policymakers at the federal, state, and local level can step in to ensure all homes are safe for families.
The risks of substandard housing
Substandard housing takes many forms, including the long-term neglect or general disrepair from institutional and private property owners.
At last nationwide count in 2017, almost 1.35 million households lived in severely inadequate homes. This includes any housing unit with one or more serious physical problems related to heating, plumbing, and electrical systems or general maintenance, such as lacking an electrical connection or hot and cold running water. Another 4.65 million lived in moderately inadequate ones, or units with problems such as incomplete kitchen facilities or repeating toilet breakdowns. Together, these account for about 5.2 percent of all US households, according to American Housing Survey data.
Homes in poor physical condition affect every community in the US, but the problem disproportionately affects certain households. More than 9 percent of all low-income renters live in inadequate housing. By racial group, 8.6 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native households and 7.2 percent of African American households live in inadequate housing. Households that have a family member with a disability are living in inadequate housing at almost twice the rate (7.9 percent) as those that do not (4.0 percent).
Despite persistent underfunding, the quality of publicly assisted housing is generally on par with or even better than the private market. That’s why owners and renters of private, unsubsidized housing in particular need help to repair substandard housing. This problem persists because of households’ lack of resources or physical ability to repair their own homes, some property owners’ negligence, and local authorities’ lack of oversight and assistance to support improvements.
Many homes damaged by disasters still aren’t repaired
Another physical housing concern poses a unique, and largely fixable, challenge. Disaster-damaged homes, including those waiting years for assistance, are the newest entries into the substandard housing stock. Billion-dollar disasters in the past few years damaged hundreds of thousands of homes—many of which have yet to be rebuilt or repaired. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that Hurricane Maria damaged 255,633 housing units (PDF) immediately after hitting Puerto Rico in 2017, but two years later, 30,000 homes remained roofless.
In Texas, the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey (PDF) in 2017 included 94,792 homeowners and 38,085 renters with unmet financial needs. More than 80,000 homes had over 18 inches of standing floodwater alone. Years after, many homes remain in disrepair because of insufficient aid and attention. This has been especially true for low-income African American and Hispanic households.
As Ben Hirsch from the West Street Recovery project in Houston notes, 17,000 Houston households still reported damages last summer. Many of these damages are mold related and could cause respiratory problems for their residents.
Delays in the disbursement of disaster safety net assistance and in private property and hazard insurance—resulting from poor policy, institutional bureaucracy, and local capacity constraints—have turned these once-functional homes into substandard ones. And, with so many homes unprepared for major disasters, the predicted “above average” Atlantic hurricane and Western wildfire (PDF) seasons this year could lead to even more substandard housing in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis that requires social distancing.
Policy steps to improve housing quality
Even though policymakers’ attention has been mostly focused on economic relief efforts, there are still opportunities to address this housing quality challenge during the pandemic:
- Federal, state, and local agencies can expedite already allocated disaster recovery funds to ensure the occupants of the remaining damaged homes can repair them immediately.
- Federal stimulus packages can expand rental assistance and other housing supports, including temporary relocation, for families living in the most severely precarious situations—physical, financial, and otherwise—while ensuring financial assistance to stay in homes is not viewed as duplicative of assistance to repair homes.
- In the longer term, the federal government can expand residential disaster mitigation programs along with those that support physical home improvements, such as the US Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Lead Hazard and Healthy Housing programs, matched to people’s actual needs. HUD’s traditional Community Development Block Grant and HOME Investment Partnerships Programs used for local housing and health code enforcement could also be expanded for this purpose.
- States can support increased stringency of building codes for new construction, as well as increased consistency in the adoption and enforcement of housing and health codes for existing homes.
- Local governments can use their resources to refocus housing and health code enforcement away from penalization of owner-occupied disrepairs to code enforcement of rental-property owners and provide financial and technical assistance for both.
The continued existence of substandard housing highlights gaps in the structural and institutional capacity to ensure safe and adequate homes for everyone. Families in these homes face yet another challenge to their lives and livelihoods during the pandemic.