'A state of constant crisis': Black households struggle with rising rents and housing shortage

Jessica Guynn

When Keisha Green, a single mother of five in Dallas, moved into her two-bedroom, 1½-bath townhome in 2017, the rent was $1,380. 

Now it’s $1,700, and her household budget is as tight as her family’s living quarters. 

Before COVID-19, she had two jobs and a dream of renting a bigger place or buying a home.

Then two paychecks became one. 

“Being a single mom,” she said, “I can barely afford this.”

Black households that have been shut out of homeownership by racial discrimination and historic inequities in education, employment and housing were in the grips of a housing crisis long before the pandemic.

Now with the supply of affordable housing shrinking and rents soaring across the country, no one is being hit harder. 

“The pandemic exacerbated inequalities that have existed for a long time," said Jaboa Lake, policy research manager at Race Forward and a former senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. "What was already a crisis became an even larger one.”

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Owning a home builds wealth and provides a safety net, particularly in times of crisis. But just 44% of Black households live in homes they own versus nearly three-quarters of white households. And Black people are more than twice as likely to rent as white people, according to Pew Research Center’s analysis of census data. 

When Keisha Green, a single mother of five in Dallas, moved into her 2-bedroom, 1½-bath townhome in 2017, the rent was $1,380. 
Now it’s $1,700 and her household budget is as tight as her family’s living quarters.

Black renters are statistically much more likely to be low-income and cost-burdened, Lake says. At the same time, there is a critical shortage of affordable housing across the country, with estimates of up to 7 million additional units needed.

Not enough rental assistance fuels fears of evictions

Making matters worse, billions of dollars in federal emergency rental assistance have not reached families in need as eviction moratoriums across the country lapse.

Nearly 12 million adults living in rental housing are behind on rent, 23% of them Black, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

More than $2.3 billion was paid out in August to 420,000 households, the most of any month to date, according to the Treasury Department, but millions of Americans still fear being evicted. 

The coming wave of evictions will disproportionately displace Black households, which are the most likely to be behind on rent payments, Lake said. Black renters, particularly Black women, are at the highest risk.

“Low-income renters, who are disproportionately people of color, are going to be the most impacted because higher-income renters are going to be competing for the very limited stock of housing that renters of color have access to,” she said. 

Black households forced to rent above their means must skimp on food, health care and other essentials, Lake said. They are also much more vulnerable to falling behind on rent.

Rents across the country are soaring and the supply of affordable housing is shrinking amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The pre-pandemic disadvantages that were there already – paying a higher share of one's income to afford housing, having a much more precarious economic standing, not having the same financial fallback with huge differences in wealth and assets – those disadvantages during the pandemic got magnified,” said Paul Ong, director of the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge. “During the pandemic, our research and other people’s research clearly shows that African Americans were displaced at a much higher rate.”

'High demand for assistance'

Sylvia Arenas, program manager for family services at Interfaith Family Services in Dallas, says she has seen the housing crisis firsthand as families stream through her doors seeking financial help. 

Her program, which primarily serves Black and Hispanic families, is getting up to 50 inquiries a day, as much as five times what it used to receive. Texas has distributed more than half – $755 million of its $1.3 billion – in rental assistance to residents in nearly all of its counties, according to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

“There is high demand for assistance,” Arenas said.

That story is echoed across the country.

“There is no question in our minds that the pandemic has hit the Black community much more than anyone else,” said Laura Boustani of CHN Housing Partners in Cleveland, where the majority of applicants – 71% – are Black.

Since July 2020, CHN Housing Partners has deployed more than $45 million in emergency rental assistance to more than 10,000 households in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, which fund its program.

'A state of constant crisis'

Lisa Endo is deputy director of the Reinvent South Stockton Coalition in Stockton, California. She says low-income renters are in “a state of constant crisis.” In San Joaquin County alone, there’s a shortage of 24,000 units for low-income renters.

“A woman called us letting us know that she was at the hospital, has COVID, is getting oxygen and her landlord was kicking her out and putting her furniture on the curb. It’s horrifying,” she said. “How do we help that woman? What are the options for her?”

Some households have had to double up, putting them at greater risk for COVID-19, or even worse, they’ve had to move into their vehicles or onto the streets, sparking fears of a new wave of homelessness, said Christian Weller, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

People gather outside of a New York City Marshall's office calling for a stop to evictions in New York City.

“We do know that it is going to be worse for African Americans than whites largely because African Americans have higher unemployment rates, typically twice as large as for white workers, and because African Americans have much fewer savings, especially renters, than white households do,” Weller said.

These days, anxieties over the scarcity of affordable housing are running high among friends and family, says LaToya McNeil.

Priced out of her hometown of Stockton, McNeil moved to a neighboring city where she rents a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom home in her landlord's backyard for $850 a month. She and her 11-year-old son alternate weeks sleeping on the pull-out couch.

A single mom, she holds down two jobs and a contract position, working 80 hours a week to save up for a two-bedroom apartment closer to her son’s school.

But as the rents in this bedroom community for San Francisco and Silicon Valley keep rising, she has begun to wonder if she will ever be able to return home to Stockton. And she has all but given up on her lifelong dream of buying a home. A friend in real estate advised her to stay put as long as she can.

“I always wanted to make sure my son had his own room,” McNeil said. “Do I just make peace with it? I don’t know.”