By: Gary Painter and Jovanna Rosen | January 26, 2021
Dr. Gary Painter is a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy and Director of the USC Price Center for Social Innovation and the Homelessness Policy Research Institute. Dr. Jovanna Rosen is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers University-Camden.
COVID-19 has overwhelmingly shown us the deep nature of social inequality in this country. Perhaps most urgently, pandemic-related economic impacts have revealed just how many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, one unanticipated bill away from losing their homes. As California is forced to backtrack on reopening plans—creating new concerns about job losses at a time when eviction moratoria are set to expire—we need to do whatever we can to protect renters and families on the brink of homelessness.
Under the new Biden Administration, we have that chance. With a fresh perspective and the political will to act, the time is ideal to implement real change that addresses not only pandemic-related problems in the short run, but also the entrenched housing affordability crisis longer term.
First, it’s critical to understand that rental unaffordability far preceded the pandemic. In a recent study from the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, researchers documented just how extensive housing precarity has become for Los Angeles residents. The study, conducted from January to October 2019, involved an in-person survey—in English and Spanish—of 800 renter households in South and Central Los Angeles. It asked households about their housing and economic situations, and how rental costs impacted their lives. The study’s primary findings illustrate the deep economic vulnerability of many Los Angeles residents, with implications for other urban regions across our nation.
First, the study found that renters were cutting back on basic needs significantly, which sometimes extended for years. More than 60% of renters reported cutting back on food, 45% on clothing and 33% on transportation in order to afford rent. Almost half had to take on additional debt during the previous two years to make rent payments.
Secondly, cutbacks were more severe in places where rent was increasing the most (Central versus South Los Angeles), suggesting the need and urgency to address rental affordability in a more geographically targeted manner.
Finally, one in five surveyed reported not being able to cover an unexpected $400 expense, an economic vulnerability that has likely increased due to the continuing pandemic. Two in five said they would have to take on additional debt to cover the expense, with 28% reporting needing to piece together multiple money sources to do so.
What this study and other research show us is that many residents were already deeply economically distressed—even pre-pandemic. It also tells us that we must act now before the crisis leaves thousands without a home.
Along with urgently addressing our growing public health crisis, Biden’s transition team must act decisively to avoid the looming eviction crisis. The short-term interventions that are being discussed—widespread stimulus aid, extending and enforcing eviction moratoria, policies that protect small landlords from rental nonpayment—are essential to avoid catastrophic conditions for a large share of residents. Furthermore, these policies are vital to protect our region, which depends on low- and moderate-income essential workers, whose well-being is critical not only during the current pandemic, but to the strength of our local economy in the future.
But we must go further to improve housing and economic stability for all renters as well.
In the long run, state and local officials must work with the Biden administration to enact structural changes to our social safety net and housing policies, providing renters with greater stability in times of crisis. This study shows how housing instability and unaffordability drives other forms of vulnerability, like job loss, homelessness and medical emergencies, rendering housing foundational to overall economic stability and wellness.
We also need structural changes in our housing markets. We need new affordable housing, which we can encourage through zoning reforms and by changing how we finance and approve new housing so it can be built more affordably and swiftly. We need to expand the Housing Choice Voucher program, which fixes a household’s rental costs to no more than 30% of income, ensuring that people with low incomes are protected against rising rents. We also need to address social exclusion, prohibiting landlords from discriminating by payment source and enforcing existing laws against housing discrimination.
The pandemic has certainly created enormous economic harm across the nation, and especially for renters that comprise over half of the households in Los Angeles and many large cities. But its impacts have been so severe because renters were already struggling to address an unaffordability crisis before the pandemic. With the Biden Administration, we not only have the opportunity to help people survive this crisis, but also to create a society where we all have the opportunity to thrive. To do so will require bold and decisive action by the government, strong political will, and an understanding that we cannot just go back to our pre-pandemic status quo.
ABOUT OUR HOUSING AFFORDABILITY RESEARCH
In 2019, a team of researchers from the USC Price Center for Social Innovation—led by Jovanna Rosen, Sean Angst, Soledad De Gregorio, and Gary Painter—conducted an in-person, door-to-door survey of 800 Los Angeles renter households to better understand the impacts of the housing affordability crisis in our region. The project aimed to understand how rental affordability operates, uncovering how it impacts residents in Los Angeles specifically, and how its effects differ across populations. Surveys were conducted in Spanish and English, across both the Los Angeles Promise Zone (LAPZ), in Central Los Angeles, and the South Los Angeles Promise Zone (SLATE-Z).
In December 2020, we published the first set of findings from the 2019 survey, focused on understanding the coping strategies and adjustments that renters in Los Angeles make in response to high rents.
See here for additional information about this project and our housing affordability work.