April 15, 2020

Linking Housing Challenges and Racial Disparities in Covid-19

Family of four in a kitchen

As the number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. continues to rise, a disturbing trend has emerged: high shares of low-income residents of color among the afflicted. While reporting on confirmed tests and fatalities by race and ethnicity is spotty, emerging data indicate that the pandemic is disproportionately impacting communities of color, especially black communities. Consider the following examples:

These and other statistics make clear that, while the virus itself does not discriminate, low-income black and other communities of color are nonetheless facing a greater health crisis relative to the rest of the country.    

Sources of Disparities

But why are communities of color seemingly more susceptible to this virus? There are many potentially contributing factors, including generally higher rates of pre-existing health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and asthma that increase susceptibility to infection. People of color are also less likely to have access to medical facilities, health insurance and paid sick leave, which may lead some to delay seeking treatment at the onset of a medical emergency

Their risks of exposure to the virus are also generally higher, given higher rates of employment in healthcare and other ‘essential’ service and public-facing occupations without the option to work from home, reliance on public transportation and greater chances of experiencing homelessness relative to non-Hispanic white individuals.

This myriad of factors spanning health, employment, income and social services concerns, however, can all be traced back to a common root cause: long-standing disparities in housing and access to opportunity. 

How Housing Exacerbates Health Disparities

Systemic discrimination in housing policy has created persistent inequities with respect to homeownership, wealth and racial segregation. From the 1930s through the late 1960s, the federal government practice of “redlining” limited or denied mortgage insurance in neighborhoods with high rates of black households and other households of color, exacerbating existing racial segregation in private home mortgage lending. 

The legacy of this discrimination continues today, in exclusionary zoning practices that restrict where people can live by artificially constraining supply and keeping house prices and rents beyond the reach of many low-income households, who are disproportionately households of color. 

As a result, access to homeownership, better schools, healthy food options and other positive externalities afforded to mostly non-Hispanic white communities are less available to households of color. For example, as we have described in our quarterly Housing Tenure Report, black households today to have lower homeownership rates than all other racial and ethnic groups. This not only limits opportunities for asset building, but also locks black families out of owning homes in neighborhoods that generally have better outcomes with respect to education, health care and employment. 

Meanwhile, black renter households are more burdened by their housing costs, with nearly 31 percent paying more than half of their income on rent, compared to 22 percent of non-Hispanic white renter households. This cost burden impacts black families’ ability to pay for other essential needs, including health care, food and transportation. 

Housing quality and stability has also been a persistent challenge for black households. Eviction rates among black renters are often many times that of non-Hispanic white renters. Partially as a consequence, HUD’s latest Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress shows that nearly 40 percent of the people experiencing homelessness are black, including nearly 27 percent of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, despite representing only 13 percent of the population. 

Black households are also three times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to live in older, crowded and/or substandard homes. Housing instability, quality and homelessness all increase families’ exposure to the virus, as lacking access to stable, safe housing limits their ability to practice social distancing and to take required Covid-19 precautions.   

Neighborhood Effects of Housing Disparities

Compounding these housing challenges are a range of negative conditions prevalent in many neighborhoods where low-income black households live. For example, recent research has documented racial disparities in access to healthy food at the neighborhood level, with generally lower quality and higher prices relative to stores in predominantly non-Hispanic white neighborhoods. As a result, nearly 21 percent of black families are food insecure — that is, they are either uncertain of having or unable to purchase adequate food for all their family members. Black families are also subjected to higher levels of air pollution and lead exposure than white families, regardless of income. 

In addition, black communities are more likely to lack important community services, such as quality, multimodal transit, broadband internet access and recreational spaces necessary for physical activity. Black communities also continue to face significant inequities in the U.S. education, employment and justice systems, which hinders upward mobility for black workers and families. These not only lead to poorer health outcomes for low-income black communities, but also more precarious economic conditions that will make weathering the coming recession that much more challenging.

Principles for Covid-19 Policy Responses

The current crisis adds even more urgency to addressing these long-standing racial and ethnic inequities in housing. Perhaps more than any other intervention, access to safe, stable and affordable housing is now recognized as vital to helping prevent the spread of the virus. While the public and private sectors are taking bold action to respond to this need, they should also take this opportunity to address some of the long-standing inequities that black and other communities of color continue to experience. This includes:

  • Developing responsive relief and recovery policies that do not exacerbate existing racial and income disparities in housing markets, by prioritizing vulnerable renters and communities of color in federal aid and offering direct rental assistance rather than channeling benefits through financial institutions that communities of color are less likely to use.
  • Supporting access to affordable housing in all communities, especially high-opportunity neighborhoods from which low-income households of color have been traditionally excluded, through expanded federal support to vital affordable housing and community development programs.
  • Boosting federal support to efforts that help address persisting inequities facing communities of color, including investments in infrastructure, environmental and health hazard mitigation and local health care and educational facilities. 
  • Increasing access to other vital needs during this crisis, such as internet connectivity, food assistance, medical care and recurring income supplements that are predicated on need and not prior tax filing status.
  • Expanding funding and support for state and local programs that address specific needs within their poorest and most vulnerable communities, especially as tax revenues decline and threaten continued provision of these valuable programs.

Check out our Coivd-19 resources page, subscribe to our daily Today In Housing newsletter and visit the Enterprise Blog for more information on housing impacts and policy responses from Covid-19.

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