May 26, 2020

One Quarter of Adults Facing Housing Insecurity, New Census Data Shows


Blog AuthorsRachel Bogardus Drew, Research Director and Amanda Davis, Program Director

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S., housing experts and advocates have been sounding the alarm on its potential impacts to housing security and affordability. Now, thanks to survey data collected earlier this month, we have our first in-depth look at whether those predictions have come true. Spoiler alert: the news is not encouraging, with nearly a quarter of all adults reporting housing insecurity – that is, either missing their rent or mortgage payment last month and/or expressing little or no confidence in their ability to afford their next housing payment either. 

These findings are part of the new Census Bureau Pulse Survey, which was launched earlier this spring to collect near-real time data on how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting American life. This survey offers the first detailed look at how individuals have been impacted with respect to employment, education, health, food security and housing. The data were collected between May 7 and 12 and reported separately by housing tenure (e.g. whether one owns or rents their residence) as well as by broad socio-demographic categories like age, race/ethnicity, marital status and income. 

The data paint a grim picture not only of millions of Americans facing current housing challenges, but of potentially even greater ones to come. The follow discussion breaks down for whom the concerns are greater. Note that all percentages reported are based on weighted estimates of adults ages 18 and over who pay for their housing (e.g. own with a mortgage or pay cash rent) and responded to the relevant question. 

Renters Report Less Confidence in Housing Security Than Owners

Renters, in general, have lower incomes and savings, less access to credit, and lower job stability. compared to homeowners. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, more than one and four renter households were extremely low income. The nationwide economic shutdown that began in March, meanwhile, has disproportionally impacted renters, as more renters experienced a loss of employment. It is therefore not surprising that adults who rent report more challenges with paying for their housing amidst the pandemic.

The Pulse Survey illustrates the pandemic’s impact on renters’ ability to afford housing across several measures. For instance, nearly 3 out of 5 renting respondents experienced a loss of employment income in their household, compared to 2 out of 5 homeowners (Figure 1). More renters also reported missing their previous month’s housing payment (17 percent) compared to owners (7 percent). Finally, more than a third of renters expressed low confidence in their ability to pay next month’s housing payment, compared to just 13 percent of owners. 

Figure 1: Housing Stability Measures by Housing Tenure

Source: U.S. Census Bureau Pulse Survey for May 7-12.

The survey results also reveal that slightly more homeowners than renters were able to defer their previous month’s housing payments. The CARES act made it easier for homeowners to get help, eliminating the requirement to prove hardship to qualify for forbearance. Renters, on the other hand, have no such provision.  While state and federal interventions temporarily prevented a surge in evictions, these protections offer only temporary relief. As eviction moratoriums expire, renters will struggle to make back payments, leaving many in debt or facing eviction.

Some Renters Facing Greater Housing Challenges Than Others

While renters generally reported more difficulty with housing stability than owners, some subsets of renter households are faring even worse than others. For instance, renters with lower incomes had much higher shares of not paying rent last month, with fully one-quarter of those with incomes below $25,000 missing their last rent payment, compared with 19 percent of those earning $25,000-$49,999, 12 percent earning $50,000-$99,999, and 5 percent of those with incomes of at least $100,000 (Figure 2). The shares of each group with low confidence for affording next month’s rent also fall with income, from 49 percent among the lowest income group to 36 percent, 24 percent, and 7 percent in each successive subset. 

A similar pattern in housing stability metrics is visible among renter groups by race, with Hispanic and non-Hispanic black renters reporting much higher shares with difficulty paying rent. Almost 30 percent of black renters and 18 percent of Hispanic renters missed their last payment, and over 40 percent of both groups have low confidence for next month. In contrast, only 14 percent of non-Hispanic white renters missed a payment, though a quarter also report low confidence for next month.

Figure 2: Renter Housing Stability Metrics by Income, Race/Ethnicity and Presence of Children

Source: U.S. Census Bureau Pulse Survey for May 7-12.

Finally, renter households with children report greater housing instability (21 percent missed payment and 40 percent low confidence for future) relative to those without children (14 percent missed payment and 28 percent low confidence), suggesting that it will not only be adults facing greater risks of eviction and homelessness in the coming months. 

Risks of Looming Eviction Crisis Remain High

These data make clear that, despite relief measures such as expanded unemployment insurance and federal stimulus payments to help American households weather the short-term economic impacts of this crisis, millions of renter households still reported difficulty paying their rent last month. These missed payments not only threaten their own housing security, but also put rental property owners in the difficult position of not meeting their financial obligations, such as debt service and maintenance needs.

Meanwhile, the low confidence expressed by many renters in their ability to pay their next month’s rent suggests an even greater crisis to come, especially as some state and local eviction moratoria expire and closed courts begin processing eviction filings again. Indeed, state-specific data released from the Census Bureau shows 10 out of the 12 states with the highest housing insecurity shares received ratings of 2.5 or fewer stars (out of five) from the Eviction Lab on their degree of renter protections. Absent a substantial policy commitment to assisting renter households through this crisis, it is likely that many of these renters will be faced with the prospect of eviction and even homelessness. 

It is critical that Congress address housing insecurity in its next Covid-19 relief package. For more information on Enterprise’s Covid-19 policy recommendations, please see our recent blog post highlighting what was included, and what is missing, in the House’s recently passed HEROES Act. 

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