On September 26, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services released the 2020 Charlotte-Mecklenburg State of Housing Instability & Homelessness (SoHIH) report. The report provides a single, dedicated compilation of all the latest local, regional, and national data on housing instability and homelessness pertaining to Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Last week’s blog focused on the first three themes from the 2020 SoHIH report. This blog post will take a deeper dive into the final two themes, which are all related to role that permanent, affordable housing plays in ensuring individual and public health.
A PRE-EXISTING CONDITION
Communities across the United States were struggling with the problem of housing instability and homelessness well before the advent of COVID-19. The problem was already worsening before the novel coronavirus impacted the economy. The pandemic has only exacerbated this pre-existing condition.
COVID-19 has also exposed facets of the problem that were previously hidden from view. As the SoHIH report indicates, housing issues are not monolithic; instead, they exist along a continuum, from stable housing to homelessness. Homelessness, for example, can include those staying in an emergency shelter; spending the night outside; couch surfing with friends or family; or paying to stay week-to-week in hotels. While the most visible manifestation is unsheltered homelessness, this segment actually represents the smallest proportion of the overall homeless population.
Based upon the best estimates available, doubled up and hotel homelessness likely comprise the largest share of homelessness, but have historically received little attention. COVID-19 has spotlighted this section of the continuum. Communities like Charlotte-Mecklenburg have taken extra measures to try and ensure all households can safely “shelter-in-place;” quarantine and isolate; and safely recover from illness, including in hotels and motels. Providing assistance to these households does not just protect an individual’s health, but also the public’s health.
PRE-EXISTING SOCIETAL CONDITIONS
COVID-19 has also underscored the extent to which other pre-existing conditions have resulted in disparate impacts from COVID-19, especially among low-income and non-white households. Page 29 of the 2020 SoHIH report discusses the impacts of COVID-19 on housing instability: 61% of Hispanic and 46% of Black households experienced COVID-19 related job loss, compared with 43% of White households. Higher numbers of Black and Hispanic households reported difficulty in paying rent and mortgage on time when compared with White households.
Recently, CNN completed an analysis of the intersection of evictions and pre-existing conditions across twelve large cities in the United States. The analysis combined data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with findings from The Eviction Lab, a database housed at Princeton University. The analysis found that there were disproportionately high rates of eviction filings over the last six months in neighborhoods identified as having households with higher rates of pre-existing medical conditions that increased susceptibility to serious outcomes from COVID-19 exposure. In short, the people who were most likely to be evicted were those living in areas with the highest health risks from the coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, these neighborhoods also tended to have households with lower average incomes.
TREATING THE CONTINUUM OF PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS
Given the steady, negative trends for housing instability and homelessness reflected in the 2020 SoHIH report, logical questions for the community to ask is: “What has kept us from successfully tackling these issues?” or, “How did this problem get so big?” or, “When can we fix this for good?”
One answer to those questions lies in the “why” of the work. The reasons for addressing housing instability and homelessness have shifted over time, from a moral imperative to a purely economic argument. When it was not enough to just “do the right thing,” it then became the “smart and strategic” thing to do: data and research has proven that it costs communities less to provide housing than it does to manage homelessness. While that argument helped launch new evidence-based interventions and approaches (like Housing First); and align resources and processes for communities to tackle the problem as a system; it did not solve the problem, either. Communities across the country are losing ground in this battle, literally, as existing units fall to new ownership or redevelopment; as the resources necessary to provide permanent, affordable housing are not fully provided; and as property owners exercise source of income discrimination.
In the wake of COVID-19, a new “why” has emerged: because housing is fundamental to both individual and public health. To protect the health of everyone, communities have had no choice but to invest in efforts to prevent homelessness, provide safer shelters, and move people quickly into housing. Housing has always been the cure for the ills of homelessness; now it is also a treatment for the scourge of COVID-19. Housing is a prerequisite to avoid exposure or, if needed, to isolate, quarantine, and recover. The structure of a home serves as a critical barrier to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus, thereby protecting the individuals inside as well as on the outside.
The eviction moratorium recently enacted by the CDC expires on December 31, 2020. While the moratorium is not perfect (it does not protect all renters; puts most of the effort on the tenant; and does not cover all the past due rent and any other charges levied), it does provide a pause for the next several months. In the meantime, communities like Charlotte-Mecklenburg can use this time to minimize the impacts of the incoming wave, which is now scheduled to hit on January 1, 2021.
According to new data (which will be updated every two weeks) from the National Council of State Housing Agencies (NCHSA), renters in the United States will owe up to $34 billion in past-due rent by January 2021. In North Carolina, this equates to an estimated rent shortfall between $632 and $824 million, and as many as 240,000 eviction filings statewide. Households who experience evictions are significantly more likely to become homeless. Homelessness creates additional barriers to getting and keeping a job, and negatively impacts both the physical and mental health of all involved.
Why should communities solve the problem of housing instability and homelessness? COVID-19 has reframed the matter as a public health issue. It has forced the hand of communities to provide new assistance to a previously hidden portion of the housing continuum. This, in turn, now requires communities to address the long-term outcomes of those households along with those previously identified, such as the unsheltered homeless. At bottom, housing is healthcare. Just as public health is not solely a single community’s issue, the housing continuum is also a local, state, and federal problem that requires a commensurate local, state, and federal response.
To share information from the 2020 SoHIH report, including how to use the data and raise awareness to inform solutions, click this link to access the full report, toolkit and handouts.
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.