In the midst of a pandemic, there are a lot of unknowns: “When will the pandemic end?” “When will I be able to see my family, friends, or co-workers “in person” again?” “What do I do for the holidays?”
Some households, especially those already living on the edge of housing instability and homelessness, might also be wondering, “How will I pay my rent (or mortgage) next month?” “If I get sick and can’t work, how will I cover my bills?” “If I get evicted, where will I go?” “How will I keep my job if I am homeless?” “How will I ever be able to find another home, and keep my family safe and healthy?”
Prior to the pandemic, communities were already addressing the pre-existing conditions of housing instability and homelessness. These communities, like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, are also grappling with how to plan for what lies on the horizon: “How many more households will become homeless as a result of COVID-19?” “What resources are necessary to prevent this from happening?” “How do we prioritize these resources upstream and downstream?”
The national eviction moratorium enacted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expires on January 1, 2021. Without additional action, communities will likely see an immediate increase in evictions; this will lead, ultimately, to increases in homelessness. One report by the National Council of State Housing Agencies (NCSHA) projects that, as of January 2021, there could be as many as 240,000 eviction filings in the state of North Carolina alone; coupled with an estimated statewide rent shortfall of between $632 and $824 million.
To help communities plan now, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) has shared a tool to estimate future homelessness. This week’s blog post will provide an overview of the tool, and how it can be used in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
WHAT IS INCLUDED IN THE TOOL
The tool is essentially a spreadsheet that compiles multiple housing and community factors which may be predictors of housing instability and homelessness. Due to disparate impacts related to COVID-19, communities are also encouraged to disaggregate the data in the tool by household composition (family versus single individual, for example), as well as by race and ethnicity.
The tool includes economic data (unemployment rate, unemployment insurance claims); evictions (filings); local policy environment (scope of prevention assistance and relevant policy factors); HMIS data and calls to 2-1-1 (individuals newly identified to the housing and homelessness system); housing conditions (high rental rates, low vacancy rates, housing affordability and overcrowding during pre-COVID era); Household Pulse Survey (weekly survey results featuring data on housing insecurity); and health data (daily COVID-19 cases). It is important to note that not every community has updated data for all elements. For example, the spreadsheet recommends using Eviction Lab data, but eviction data is not available beyond 2016 for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
EXTERNAL FACTORS THAT ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE
While the tool helps quantify and project future need, it is important to remember that it exists in a world that is constantly changing. HUD calls out four specific factors that are most likely to change and, as a result, are important to consider when projecting future homelessness. These include patterns of unemployment; amount of public assistance made available to address housing instability and homelessness in response to COVID-19; duration and extent of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the time it will take for local economies to recover.
APPLYING THE TOOL TO CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG
We have applied the tool to Charlotte-Mecklenburg, using local, state and national data sources. Here is a link to the full spreadsheet, which is also available to download.
Below is a summary of the trends to watch:
- Charlotte-Mecklenburg has a larger share of extremely low income households experiencing housing cost burden when compared with the national average. National research indicates that higher levels of cost burden are positively associated with higher totals of homelessness particularly in tight rental markets such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
- Compared with the 4% pre-pandemic unemployment rate in March 2020, the unemployment rate is currently almost double that at 7.8%. Research suggests that areas with high rents and low vacancy rates such as in Charlotte-Mecklenburg may be particularly vulnerable to increased rates of homelessness when there are also increased rates of unemployment.
- As of October 2020, 27% (14,450,295 households) of the renter population in Charlotte-Mecklenburg reports they have no or only a slight confidence in their ability to pay the next month’s rent. This metric sheds light on the number of people who are experiencing housing insecurity during the pandemic; and can serve as a “close to real time” indicator of the number of individuals and households at risk of homelessness in our community.
- The total number of COVID-19 cases in Charlotte-Mecklenburg has been increasing steadily during the past 30 days. There have been increases across the measures of housing cost burden, unemployment, and housing insecurity since the onset of the pandemic with the highest rates of these metrics coinciding with the highest rate of increase in COVID-19 cases. Monitoring the total number of COVID-19 cases as well as other metrics related to homelessness can help communities plan a public health response that integrates housing needs.
Recognizing that a tsunami of evictions is quickly approaching the shores of communities across the United States, estimates like the one highlighted in this blog are useful in making decisions today that will have the greatest positive impact tomorrow.
However, quantifying the problem is not the same thing as solving it. Quantifying is, rather, a good first step. Estimating the potential impacts can provide guideposts for communities who are struggling with how to allocate existing dollars and/or prepare new budgets. But there remains a larger issue at play: there are not enough resources allocated at the local, state, or federal levels to fully address housing instability and homelessness. This knowledge frees up communities to plan at, and even beyond, their resource limits.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) recently released a new report that outlines the need for additional federal funding to address the impact of the pandemic. The report also indicates that despite recent modest economic growth, there remain high rates of unemployment; unemployment disproportionately impacts lower-wage workers and people of color. In addition, the CBPP projects that poverty levels will increase from 10.5% in 2019 to 13.6% in late 2020.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) has called for a national eviction moratorium until the pandemic is over, in combination with at least $100 billion in federal emergency rental assistance. Without financial assistance to help renters (and the landlords who are renting to them), the eviction moratorium merely postpones the inevitable.
Beyond maximizing federal assistance, communities can responsibly coordinate the allocation of local public and private dollars. Helping struggling individuals and families to stay safely in their homes is a benefit to both public health and local economies. Quickly re-housing those currently experiencing homelessness contributes to individual and public health, and frees up shelter beds for emergent situations. Using the tool to both flatten the incoming wave and stack the sandbags against the tide will best position communities to ride out the storm that is COVID-19.
Courtney LaCaria coordinates posts on the Building Bridges Blog. Courtney is the Housing & Homelessness Research Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. Courtney’s job is to connect data on housing instability, homelessness and affordable housing with stakeholders in the community so that they can use it to drive policy-making, funding allocation and programmatic change.
Mary Ann Priester is the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) System Coordinator for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Continuum of Care (CoC). She provides data quality, security, and privacy oversight for the local HMIS system and technical support and training to 25+ agencies that serve individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Mary Ann also oversees data collection for the Point-in-Time Count.