New Report Shows Housing Was Bleak Even Before COVID-19

boy holds cardboard house in hands

There’s been a lot of talk recently about financial stress amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and rightly so. Unemployment rates have skyrocketed while unemployment benefits will soon end or dramatically decrease. As eviction bans expire, evictions will soon be occurring in record numbers. All this is causing many to fear a homelessness crisis is coming, the likes of which this country has never seen.

Although it seems like ages ago, the U.S. housing landscape was brutal before COVID-19. Even before we’d ever heard of coronavirus, Americans were struggling to pay for rent. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) released its annual report, Out of Reach: The High Cost of Housing 2020, on July 14. It reveals disturbing statistics on the state of housing in the U.S. over the past year.

Just like last year’s report, findings show minimum wage workers can’t afford a modest two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. Only 95 percent of minimum wage workers can afford a one-bedroom apartment.

The report references a housing wage, or the amount per hour a worker would need to earn to afford a two-bedroom apartment, while spending no more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. This year, that wage is $23.96 per hour. Last year it was $22.96.

Americans must now earn one dollar more per hour to afford housing.

Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage has not been raised since 2009. It’s been set at $7.25 for over 10 years. And though numerous efforts have been made to raise it, none have succeeded. Around half of states have a minimum wage higher than the federal one. But that still isn’t enough to help the average American afford his or her rent. Washington D.C. has the highest minimum wage at $15 an hour, which is $2 more than the next-highest in California, but still nowhere near enough.

Many argue the minimum wage should have no bearing on homelessness rates, because the majority of people earning minimum wage are high schoolers or college students. This view is out of touch with reality. Most minimum-wage workers are over the age of 25.

Consider what’s necessary to earn above minimum wage: education, skills, and privilege. For people who are born into poverty, disabled, struggle with mental illness or substance abuse, or lack a support system, there are no opportunities to gain these things. Privilege is all a matter of luck. Hispanic women earn an average of $400 less per week than white men.

The Irony of Essential Workers

Consider the essential workers. Grocery store cashiers earn an average of $11.61 per hour. Janitors, home health workers, and personal care aides earn an average of $12.94 per hour. Workers who care for the dying in hospices, who change sheets in hospitals, care for babies in daycares, and butcher livestock in packing plants are the foundation of this country. Yet, these are the lowest-paid and most poorly-treated of America’s workers.

Despite being hailed as “essential,” which they definitely are, they’re subjected to extreme poverty. Millions rely on food stamps. They’re the workers who are unskilled, mentally ill, disabled, or formerly incarcerated. They’re most at-risk of becoming homeless, and may have been or even still are homeless.

They are also most at-risk of contracting COVID-19. But rather than giving them hazard pay to show we appreciate their work and sacrifice, we honor them with billboards and TV commercials instead of a livable wage.

These are truly painful times for Americans.

Almost one-third of American households missed their housing payments at the beginning of July. Many of us, even those with very little risk of ever becoming homeless (though no one is truly immune) have been negatively impacted financially in some way by COVID-19. Perhaps this gives us some insight into how those in poverty feel. We may never be able to fully relate, but maybe we can have a bit more empathy.

Adding Insult to Injury

Applauding minimum wage workers for their sacrifice feels like mockery. Not that these workers wouldn’t choose the jobs they had if they had more ability to choose. However, rather than simply applauding them, we should honor them with a greater share of this country’s wealth.

If there is one thing to be learned from this pandemic, it’s about the relationship between health and income. U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown writes in the NLIHC report:

“The coronavirus pandemic has been the ‘great revealer,’ laying bare the inequities in our society, and reminding us how our homes affect every aspect of our lives, including our health.”

Income, and housing by extension, has a two-directional relationship with health. If we are not housed, we cannot be healthy. If we’re not healthy, we’re less likely to be housed.

The disturbing implication of this is: can we truly be healthy while we struggle so much as a nation with poverty and homelessness? Growing wealth inequality may be the greatest health threat of all to low-wage workers. In fact, it’s a threat to most of us, when you consider the report’s findings on the cost of housing. It won’t be long before all those in the middle class feel the weight of the gap, too.

What can any of us do in the face of corporate greed and growing wealth inequality?

Never stop writing to your legislators, even if it’s a one-sided conversation. Advocate for extensions on eviction bans and increased unemployment benefits. Now is an especially great time to keep a line of communication open with your legislators, while the next stimulus bill is being discussed.

On an ongoing basis, research what is contributing to poverty and homelessness and spread the word with those around you. The more voices speak up, the louder the volume, and the harder they become to ignore. Join local causes promoting affordable housing and better-paying jobs.

If all you can do for homeless people is to help those experiencing homelessness in your community feel a bit more heard and respected, do that. The Out of Reach report, along with the pandemic in general, tells us there is nothing separating the housed from the unhoused but a few missed paychecks.

Victoria VanTol

Victoria VanTol


Victoria VanTol holds a master's degree in social work. She is a therapist and freelance writer specializing in topics related to social justice and mental health.

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