Written by Adina Solomon | Art by Fabian Williams
Written by Adina Solomon
Art by Fabian Williams
COVID-19 has come not just for Americans’ health, but for their livelihoods. The economic crisis triggered by the pandemic has resulted in pay cuts and furloughs for millions of U.S. workers, making it difficult to cover rent, utilities, Internet access and the other necessities.
The pandemic’s economic impacts, just like its health impacts, haven’t been borne equally by all Americans. Black workers have seen greater losses of employment than white workers, and Black and Latino families are more likely than white families to face the prospect of losing their homes. More than one-fifth of Black and Latino adults said their household either missed or delayed a rent or mortgage payment as of the week ending July 21 — more than twice the percentage of white adults, according to data from the Census Bureau.
“These vulnerabilities have always been out there,” says Deirdre Oakley, professor of sociology. “Even before the pandemic, about 10 to 15 percent of Americans were housing insecure, according to a report from the Brookings Institution. COVID just makes it that much worse — and we don’t know when the pandemic is going to end.”
A number of Georgia State faculty have spent their careers investigating the roots of the housing crisis. Here, they share what they’ve learned about the fight to stay housed and the research-backed solutions that can keep Americans off the streets.
KEEP AN EYE ON EVICTIONS
While expanded unemployment insurance has helped boost housing stability during the pandemic, “if it runs out, we’re going to have an eviction crisis like we’ve never seen,” says urban studies professor Dan Immergluck. “It will dwarf the foreclosure crisis in terms of the amount of instability and pain that it will cause families.”
Lauren Sudeall, associate professor of law and director of Georgia State’s Center for Access to Justice, has used eviction courts as a lens for thinking about how low-income renters, particularly people of color, interact with the judicial process. In the first months of the pandemic, Sudeall worked with Dan Pasciuti, assistant professor of sociology, to examine the effects of COVID-19 on eviction courts in Georgia’s 159 counties.
By analyzing information collected by Georgia Appleseed and the State Bar of Georgia’s Pro Bono Resource Center, Sudeall and Pasciuti created a report in May about evictions during the early days of the pandemic. The national CARES Act included a ban on evictions from federally financed properties, covering about a third of the country’s rental units. But Sudeall and Pasciuti found most courts in Georgia continued to accept eviction filings, although the majority didn’t hold hearings or direct police to evict tenants. (Renters have since been granted an additional reprieve thanks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which instituted an eviction ban in September through the remainder of 2020.)
“Still, if filings have already been accepted, the timeline to file an answer starts immediately upon reopening,” Sudeall says, meaning evictions could begin quickly after the moratorium ends.
DEVELOP FORMAL PROTECTIONS FOR TENANTS
Georgia is one of a few states that does not require landlords to issue a pre-filing notice, a period in which the tenant can pay the rent with no formal, trackable eviction filing on their record. That needs to change, says Immergluck, because eviction records make it harder for tenants to secure quality, affordable rental housing elsewhere.
Immergluck also says states should take into account the eviction history of developers when choosing who will receive the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, a major affordable housing subsidy. His research on serial evictions has found that larger landlords tend to file evictions repeatedly on the same tenant, not to get them out of the unit but as a means to collect payment. (Filing an eviction turns unpaid rent into a formal debt and gives landlords ground to charge late fees.) Smaller landlords are more likely to use eviction filings as a last resort.
In a study released in July, Immergluck examined hyper-vacancy, a situation in which more than eight to 10 percent of a neighborhood’s homes remain empty long-term. Hyper-vacancy, which has been associated with increased crime, creates a drag on a community, he says.
“Many people avoid buying or renting homes in hyper-vacant neighborhoods,” Immergluck says. “This leads to lowered property values and even more vacant homes.”
For his study, Immergluck used U.S. Postal Service data that keep track of vacant addresses, looking at neighborhoods from the end of the housing crisis in 2012 until 2019. While vacancy generally declined during that period, some metropolitan areas in the Sunbelt, such as Memphis and Birmingham, which have weaker housing markets and stagnating population growth, continue to have pervasive hyper-vacancy. Race and income also play a role, as hyper-vacant neighborhoods tend to be disproportionately Black and low-income and clustered in majority Black cities. As a result, depressed property values caused by hyper-vacancy prevent the creation of wealth by Black homeowners and discourage economic development in those areas.
According to Immergluck, the pandemic could exacerbate the vicious cycle of hyper-vacancy, particularly in Black communities, which have been hit hardest by COVID-19.
“I fear that landlords in such neighborhoods may disinvest or walk away from their properties if they cannot keep them occupied at reasonable rents,” he says. “In some places, these properties will just be left abandoned. In others, they become very low-quality housing that does not meet even basic housing codes.”
Community Land Trust-O-Matic
A) Young family enters future home B) Tripping community land trust low price C) Activating sod ejection sign D) Catapulting sign E) Activating community land trust protection barrier
INVEST IN COMMUNITY LAND TRUSTS
As cities’ populations swell and neighborhoods become revitalized, demand for housing often exceeds the supply, causing prices to spike. Atlanta’s median home costs have risen nearly 100 percent in the past decade, while rents have shot up 65 percent.
One way to preserve affordable housing and reduce the impact of gentrification is by empowering nonprofits known as community land trusts (CLT). A CLT purchases land for the benefit of the greater community, allowing houses to be built on it and sold to low-income buyers. (If the owners want to sell, they, in turn, must also find a buyer who meets the income requirements.)
In 2007 and 2009, Immergluck demonstrated in a pair of studies the Atlanta BeltLine caused nearby home prices to soar, and as a result the organization behind the BeltLine dedicated more money to affordable housing. The Atlanta Land Trust was created to ensure long-term affordability in BeltLine-adjacent neighborhoods and other areas at risk of displacement.
During the foreclosure crisis beginning in 2008, few people living in CLTs were foreclosed on, says Oakley. Working with Erin Ruel, professor of sociology and gerontology at Georgia State, and a colleague from the City University of New York, Oakley recently collected data to determine how CLTs impact a variety of concerns for residents, including their economic security.
The researchers studied CLTs in the areas of Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., comparing residents who lived in CLTs with low-income residents who didn’t. Although people living in CLTs have less chance to build home equity as property values increase, the team found the groups had little difference in accumulated wealth. People who had lived in CLTs for at least five years had significantly less accumulated debt compared to the low-income group in private market homes.
LOWER ENERGY COSTS
Shelter-in-place orders have compelled people to spend more time at home, thereby using more energy. Prentiss Dantzler, assistant professor in the Urban Studies Institute, is working with a colleague at the University of Denver and a group from ComEd, an electric utility in Illinois, to research how energy upgrades can be used to lower household costs and increase residents’ ability to remain in gentrifying neighborhoods. The study will look at the effectiveness of measures like adding sustainable heating, ventilation and air conditioning units in homes, creating neighborhood-level electrical grids and working to curb heat island effects.
“The pandemic really highlights the need to curb housing costs for already marginalized communities,” Dantzler says. “We hope this pilot study will help us create a model for developing equitable energy sources that provide resiliency to environmental and economic conditions.”
BUILD A NETWORK OF AFFORDABLE TRANSPORTATION
Often, studying housing means looking beyond the walls of a home. For Dantzler, that includes how we get around.
“When you think about how people spend their money, a lot of it goes towards not just household costs but transportation costs, especially in a city like Atlanta where there’s high use of cars,” he says.
Part of Dantzler’s research is focused on how to create a sustainable public transit system in the era of COVID-19, when ridership in many cities has declined as a result of the pandemic.
“People are leaving their homes less often, workers aren’t commuting into offices. Those with transportation options are choosing the socially distant safety of cars,” he says.
As a result, many cities, including Atlanta, have cut transit schedules, putting pressure on the remaining riders, who tend to have a lower income than car owners. With faculty from faculty from law, sociology, public management and policy, and film and media studies, Dantzler is studying how to connect micromobility options (such as scooters) within the traditional bus and train routes, which would give people across the region greater transportation access during the pandemic.
“Massive transportation infrastructure programs take a lot of time and resources that are easily swayed by political conflicts and economic swings,” he says. “Micromobility is an immediate option that can fill in some gaps within the current system.”
ERADICATE HATE CRIMES
Over the past few years, hate crimes have been on the rise in the U.S., with the number of violent hate crimes reaching a 16-year high in 2018, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Courtney Anderson, associate professor of law and affiliated faculty with the Center for Access to Justice, wants to address the problem as it intersects with housing, because people experiencing racial intimidation are often unable to remain in their homes or move into certain neighborhoods.
Anderson says the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development should incorporate hate crimes eradication into its housing policy. It could do this by dedicating funds to prevent hate crimes and requiring states to implement plans for fighting hate crimes. Anderson says the Department of Housing and Urban Development should also require states to collect data on hate crimes, especially those that take place on residential properties.
“If there’s this type of harassment based on race, that should really be a focus of housing policy dollars, housing developers and the federal government,” Anderson says.
LOOK BEYOND BAND-AID SOLUTIONS
In a new book chapter about housing during COVID-19, Anderson explores how government action to protect U.S. citizens during the pandemic has so far been focused on short-term fixes that do not guarantee stable housing after the protections expire.
One example is moratoria on evictions. Even with a high unemployment rate, landlords can start evicting people once the moratoria end.
“If you haven’t been working for four months, that’s great that you’re not evicted,” Anderson says. “But when it ends after 30 days or 60 days, then all of a sudden you owe X amount of rent all at once. It’s just postponing the problem.”
She says policymakers need to think longer-term. For example, she says, they should offer free broadband access so people can easily work or attend school from home and free or government-subsidized utilities so people can continue to have sanitary living conditions with water and electricity. She also suggests creating a fund to provide relief to both renters and landlords.
“Affordable housing is in such a short supply, Anderson says. “There’s a lot of housing that’s substandard. The country has always been very segregated with respect to living patterns.
“The pandemic is exacerbating all of that, and laws and policies need to really go overboard in appropriating funds to address the issue. It’s not just going to affect people who are low-income. It’s an economic crisis for every American.”