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The economic problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest sparked by racial injustice shows the need for national politicians to take housing issues seriously, a new report by prominent Harvard University housing scholars says.

The Joint Center for Housing Studies’ annual State of the Nation’s Housing report, to be presented in a webinar this afternoon, says increasing access to affordable housing, addressing racial segregation in housing and reducing the vulnerability of many homes to natural disasters requires a coordinated federal response.

“To be effective, a new national housing policy would set out the appropriate roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments in meeting the country’s needs,” JCHS Managing Director Chris Herbert said in a statement. “Among other things, it would establish funding sources and distribution channels for subsidies, create incentives for efficient private production of housing through regulatory and tax structures, and ensure the availability and affordability of mortgage financing as well as the stability of the housing finance system.”

As of late September, Herbert and the report’s other authors found, more than half of lowest-income renters lost wages  since the March shutdown compared to 41 percent of all households, and roughly one in five renters earning less than $25,000 also said they were behind on rent.

And while 36 percent of all homeowners reported losing income between March and September, the shares are as high as 44 percent among owners earning less than $25,000, 41 percent among Black owners, and 49 percent among Hispanic owners. Additionally, while 7 percent of white homeowners were behind on mortgage payments in late September, the share was nearly two-and-a-half times higher among Hispanic (18 percent) and Black (17 percent) owners, and twice as high among Asian owners (12 percent).

“Widespread calls for racial justice have pointed out the high degree of residential segregation and economic inequality that still exists in the US,” report co-author and JCHS senior research associate Daniel McCue said in a statement. “In fact, the sharp racial disparities in housing are both a cause and a consequence of other social inequalities [including economic insecurity].”

The report also found that the United States has experienced 16 distinct billion-dollar natural disasters so far this year, making this year one of the three worst on record. The cost of damages neared $50 billion as of September, surpassing the total for all of 2019. Climate change has also added to the number of low-income households facing energy insecurity, the report found.

In most of Massachusetts’ major regions aside from Worcester County, the report found, around one-third of the population was paying 30 percent or more of their income for housing last year. Among homeowners, that figure was lower – 25.8 percent of owners in Greater Boston, 23.3 percent in the Pioneer Valley and 22.9 percent in Worcester County – but sat at or near 50 percent of renters in all parts of Massachusetts.

In large part this is down to a reduction in federal housing assistance spending, the report says, noting that federal expenditures for housing assistance fell from 9 percent of non-defense discretionary spending to 7.1 percent while the number of cost-burdened renters rose by 6 million. Since then, that figure has only increased to 7.4 percent of non-defense discretionary spending while the number of cost-burdened renters has held steady.

Amid a nation-wide surge in homebuying – 22 percent higher than last year as of September, the report found – and insufficient numbers of homes being produced each year, the number of homes on the market nationwide has hit the lowest level in decades, the report says, further fueling concerns about housing affordability even as demand remains strong.

Pandemic, Segregation Show Need for National Housing Agenda, Harvard Researchers Say

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min