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Covid-19 and housing precarity?

From systemic failure towards a just recovery

Urban Systems Lab
May 13 · 15 min read

By Zef Egan, Zbigniew Grabowski and Veronica Olivotto

The current pandemic lays bare disparities in the precarity and quality of housing. Our ongoing analysis identifies strong relationships between housing precarity (defined as eviction rates, rent burden, and crowding) and vulnerability to Covid-19. We argue that a just response to Covid-19 must simultaneously address the contextual vulnerability of housing precarity, climate change, and structural inequality. We build on ongoing work from the Urban Systems Lab (USL) on the contextual vulnerability of New Yorkers to Covid-19.

By May 1st, almost half of New Yorkers could not afford to pay rent, and this crisis continues to spread around the country. In its survey of 11.5 million units nationwide, the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) found that, by April 6th, over 5% less households were able to pay rent on time as compared to the same date in 2019. While this rate has declined slightly in May, it may be due to stimulus payments largely being consumed by housing costs. The struggle to pay for housing is magnified for the 88 million Americans yet to receive $1,200 stimulus payments; as well as the over 8 million Americans unable to apply for unemployment benefits due to system problems and delays. New Yorkers are all too familiar with these concerns; despite being at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic, they have experienced egregious delays in economic relief.

Economically precarious households and workers are those most exposed to Covid-19. As housing advocates have long exclaimed, and recently reiterated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “… housing has been a public health issue since before this pandemic.” Housing conditions drive many health outcomes, with poor and insecure housing causing many of the underlying conditions that increase vulnerability to Covid-19. Earle Chambers and Emily Rosenbaum, from the MacArthur Foundation, found that Latinx residents of public housing in the Bronx had significantly higher rates of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes than section 8 residents. Seth Berkowitz, from the American Diabetes Association found nationally unstable housing increased the annual likelihood of diabetes-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations by 19%. In housing that gets sunlight, coronavirus transmissions decrease, whereas damp, dusty and moldy housing weakens the respiratory systems and increases risk of contracting and dying of the coronavirus. According to a Harvard University study, long-term exposure to air pollution significantly increases the mortality of Covid-19 infections. For-profit housing subjects poor people and people of color to subpar living conditions and reinforces generational injustices encapsulated by an old saying, when white folks catch a cold, black folks get pneumonia. Housing precarity is interdependent with the impacts of, and vulnerability to, Covid-19.

Here we examine three main dimensions of housing precarity in NYC, including patterns of displacement through forced evictions, overall rent burden, and the degree of crowding and their relationships with confirmed cases of Covid-19. Our ongoing work in the USL preliminary indicates that economically precarious housing (rent burden and cumulative displacement risk) positively and significantly correlates with the incidence of Covid-19, as does household crowding, albeit to a lesser degree. We discuss these findings in the context of the failings of state and federal policy responses to Covid-19, and identify key considerations for formulating a just response and recovery that includes housing concerns.

Figure 1. Current map of cumulative percentage of zip code level population with confirmed cases of covid-19. Data from NYC Department of Health Covid-19 Github repository and population estimates from the 5-yr 2018 American Community Survey.

Relationships between Covid-19 occurrence and housing precarity in NYC

While evictions have been temporarily halted in the city (Fig. 3), eviction moratoriums merely delay rent collection, burdening families that are facing increasingly precarious and hazardous working conditions while suffering the impacts of the global pandemic. Additionally, neighborhoods that have been experiencing forced displacement through evictions appear to be much more vulnerable to Covid-19 infections, as evidenced by the current data from the Displacement Alert Project (DAP). Here, we examined the cumulative occurrence of evictions at the zip code level, and divided these cumulative sums (since 2017) by the 2018 estimate of total rental housing units per zip code from the 5 year American Community Survey.

Figure 2. Top: monthly eviction totals for all of NYC from Jan 2017 to the present. Bottom left: Map of estimated cumulative percentage of forced displacement of renters from ANHD data on evictions in NYC per zip code from Jan 1, 2017 to the present from the DAP, divided by the number of rental units estimated from the 2018 5 year American Community Survey.
Figure 3. Map and Scatterplot of rate of positive COVID cases (pct of zip code population with a confirmed case) and percent of rental units experiencing forced eviction.

We find that at the zip code level, the current rate of confirmed Covid-19 cases is highly, significantly, and positively correlated with the three year rate of housing evictions (Spearman’s rho: 0.7, p < 0.01). This finding is disturbing in that, despite a moratorium on evictions, the phenomenon of forced displacement appears to be strongly related to socio-economic vulnerability to Covid-19. Furthermore, New Yorkers living in shelters have tripled since 2014. Units held by owners as investments or pied-at-tiers also tripled.

For a household to be rent burdened, it means that more than 25 percent of gross annual household income goes towards paying rent. In 2018, a report from the Citizen Budget Commission revealed that almost half of the households in New York City were rent burdened. Among those severely rent burdened, 81% were Extremely Low Income. And 368,000 households spent more than half of their very low income on rent. The same year the 247,977 apartments were reportedly empty or scarcely occupied. Rent burdened households have very little space for financial maneuvering and are used to cutting back in other areas. The financial fragility experienced by rent burdened households can often become untenable when an unforeseen event further strains their finances. The current Covid-19 pandemic is one such event. According to the most recent data from the American Community Survey (2018), 64% of NYC households pay over 25% of their annual gross income in annual rents. Examining patterns between Covid-19 occurrence (Fig. 1) and rent burden (Fig. 2), we find that the two are highly positively correlated (Spearman’s rho: 0.58, p < 0.01).

Figure 4. Map of estimated % of households paying annual rent greater than 25% of gross annual income, note that in over 80% of census tracts over 50% of households are rent burdened. Data from the 2018 5 year American Community Survey.
Figure 5. Scatterplot zip code level percentage of households with estimated rent burden and the percent of the population with a confirmed case of Covid-19.

Of the 5.4 million renters in New York City, 40% of renters live in a ‘doubled-up household’, or a household where at least two working age, unmarried or unpartnered adults live together, 10% more than the national average. Examining relationships between percent of housing considered crowded (more than 1 occupant per room) by the American Community survey, we find that the two are positively and significantly correlated (Spearman’s rho: .22, p < 0.01). However, overall, and counter-intuitively, given that many assume that housing density drives highly infectious disease transmission, we find that both rent burden and housing pressure display much stronger relationships with population level infection rates than crowding.

Figure 6. Map of NYC zip codes by percentage of housing units experiencing crowding (more than 1 person per room)
Figure 7. scatterplot of rate of positive COVID cases (pct of zip code population with a confirmed case and percent of crowded residential units).

These preliminary analyses form the basis for ongoing work examining both the social dynamics of the disease, as well as how a just response should take into account intersecting vulnerabilities related to climate and economic justice.

Housing Precarity and Covid-19 through the lens of contextual vulnerability

Karen O’Brien, at the University of Oslo, uses the term ‘contextual vulnerability’ based on a processual and multidimensional view of climate — society interactions. From this perspective climate variability and change, and related extreme events such as hurricanes and heat waves, occur in the context of political, institutional, economic and social structures and dynamics acting on a particular ‘exposure unit.’ The exposure unit can be a person, a neighborhood, or a city. For example, neighborhoods where rent burdened households are most frequently found, which is influenced by how rent burden arose in the first place, due to ongoing legacies of housing, economic and financial policies, that keep certain groups in society from utilizing financial services, accumulate savings, and transition to home ownership or alternatives to it (Pew, 2018).

As the frequency and severity of hurricanes and sea level rise increase, poor and rent burdened households may not be able to shoulder the losses to property and potential health impacts. Likewise they may face displacement and relocation under policy responses that aim at building ‘resilient communities’ without considerations of housing affordability, where new constructions with more stringent building standards — retrofitting — will make buildings more costly (Green, 2004). For some segments of society, climate change related events make already fragile living conditions unbearable, very fast. A contextual vulnerability lens makes clear that climatic hazards, social groups characteristics and institutional contexts are relational and dynamic.

Just as we illustrated for climate change impacts, seeing the Covid-19 pandemic through the lens of contextual vulnerability, allows us to better position the impacts of the pandemic on rent burdened and precarious living New Yorkers, as long standing structural issues that compromise the resilience of New Yorkers and increase their vulnerability. They prevent people from saving, preparing for disaster, or planning long term.

The inadequacy of current responses

In the words of Ed Yong “pandemics often expose existing fault lines in societies, and reveal whom a society cares about and whom it often ignores.” The Federal response to date has aggravated rather than redress ongoing economic injustices in American society, and this unevenness is magnified within cities. Throughout the United States People of Color are less likely to own homes than Whites, disproportionately have higher housing cost burdens, and have more precarious incomes. New York City leads the country in both the number of overall Covid-19 cases and in these egregious racial divides in home ownership and landlordship, all contributing greatly to the risk of displacement by forced eviction. Throughout the country we are hearing echoes of a familiar, tragic phrase: I can’t breathe. This became a rallying cry against the brutalization and murder of people of color by law enforcement. It underwent metamorphosis, from the desperate cry of a single man suffocated on the sidewalk to organized collective outrage. Now in city after city, state after state, people of color are dying disproportionately from Covid-19, are losing loved ones disproportionately to COVD-19, and are receiving less relief than white Americans.

After weeks of policy responses that have been categorized as public endangerment, the Federal administration, following the lead of many cities, ordered moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures. Despite large lenders like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae allowing forbearance of up to twelve months on mortgage payments, landlords throughout quarantined cities have notified residents that rent is still due. The same applies in New York State, where, despite a moratorium on evictions for 90 days for both residential and commercial tenants, as of now the back-pay will be due once the moratorium comes to an end. While temporary eviction moratoriums have been called “the fundamental answer that solves all of the above,” such a response conflates landlords and renters by insisting “even the people to whom you pay the rent have to pay the rent.” Lumping investors and property owners seeking to maximize profits and unemployed New Yorkers seeking housing for themselves and their families during a pandemic obfuscate the failures of for-profit housing.

On May 7th, in response to pressure from legislators, community organizations, and tenants, the eviction moratorium was extended to August 20, 2020. In New York State, the response has made allowances for tenants to use security deposits for rent payment, and reiterated that there would be no extra fee for late-payments. However, merely delaying collection and subsequent eviction and by pretending the issue has been resolved, further burdens individuals and families isolated in quarantine, forcing them to decide themselves whether to pay rent. Given the uneven prevalence of evictions, many families have to consider landlord retaliation. When homelessness looms, our neighbors may choose to pay rent and go hungry, or work while sick to pay rent.

Calling delays in eviction a “fundamental answer” trivializes eviction and ignores the structural forces that cause housing precarity, which state and city governments could address. It ignores entirely the severity of the preexisting housing crisis which denies over 100,000 people in New York State the fundamental human right to safe and secure housing. Since 2016, houselessness in America has overall been on the rise, reversing consistent declines since 2007. Houselessness, like homeownership, perpetuates structural racism: African Americans comprise 40% of the homeless population while constituting only 13% of the population. A policy response that does not significantly address the very real threat of houselessness for many New Yorkers, privileges perspectives and life experiences that have never faced a similar situation. The refusal to forgive rent payment for the duration of the quarantine subjects millions of working class Americans to terror.

The current CARES Act magnifies discrepancies based on race, class, and gender. As pointed out by the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School, the proposed aid package does not prevent the temporary losses from becoming permanent and structural. Further, by focusing relief on small businesses through forgivable loans for 8 weeks of rent, it disproportionately benefits white men who own the majority of businesses in America (Minorities own 17.5%). In contrast to capacity arguments behind business ownership, women comprise a better educated majority of the population, yet own only 19.4% of businesses. The parts of CARES Act that purportedly relieve small businesses amount largely to corporate welfare. According to the legislation a “small business” employs up to 500 people, and a medium-sized business employs up to 10,000. Legislative definitions driving the distribution of resources are not based in reality: 98 percent of firms have less than 100 workers, and almost 90% overall have less than 2o employees. Furthermore, the CARES act considered franchises like Burger King and Hilton as small business, meaning the vast majority of loans will go to corporations with the resources to most fully exploit the legislation.

While New Yorkers wait for their $1200 stimulus checks, these checks can hardly be considered ‘relief’ given that rent for the lowest 25% of the housing market for a 1 bedroom apartment is $2,650. According to Housing Justice For All, hundreds of families in buildings containing more than 1,500 rental units are “coordinating building-wide rent strikes.” The organized rent strike demands egalitarian and restorative coronavirus relief. Over 14,000 New Yorkers, including political parties and tenant coalitions, signed an online pledge refusing to pay rent in May 2020 and asking for a four month rent cancellation, rent freezes and re-housing for all people experiencing homelessness. Rent Strikes serve as acts of protest and sources of relief in and of themselves. Rent Strikes dignify the only possible collective response for people who cannot afford rent by displaying building-wide solidarity. The movement prioritizes those most vulnerable, demanding that the city “urgently and permanently rehouse 92,000 homeless New Yorkers by any means necessary.”

A Rent Strike is a rational reaction to the ambiguous measures taken by the state, city, and federal government. As pointed out recently by critical housing scholars, measures taken by federal and state administrations must consider long term housing needs, struggles and demands. Without addressing the structure of the real estate market, the long term economic impacts of the pandemic will likely lead to massive declines in small businesses and even more massive consolidation of real estate holdings by investment firms, driving up the long term cost of housing. Despite a cessation of evictions in the city, the underlying forces that allow for forced displacement, which are closely tied to the forces creating rent burdens, appear to be a major driver of vulnerability to Covid-19. In fact the prevalence of rent burden and eviction correlate more strongly to Covid-19 vulnerability in New York City than living in crowded housing conditions. There thus remains a tremendous need for structural policy changes regarding evictions as the city seeks to recover from the impacts of Covid-19.

Policy responses to Covid-19 should address structural inequality in housing and beyond

Since 1987, a report by the New School found, New York City has invested more than $17.5 billion of its own capital resources on the construction and preservation of more than 450,000 units. However, local initiative is severely limited in ensuring affordability, when it is not supported by federal money. This new crisis cannot lead to a return to normal but it requires curbing the extractive real estate market, a restructuring of the housing market and measures towards reducing income wage inequality.

To begin with, rather than bankroll a $500 billion dollar corporate slush fund, the federal government could pay the rent of every renter for ten months, with $100 billion leftover to provide coronavirus relief for the houseless. Better yet, federal, state, and municipal governments could explore long term solutions to the increasing financialization of the real estate sector and chronic underemployment. One such set of solutions involves direct investments in upskilling, education, and creation of public financing mechanisms for improvements to the built environment and housing stock that benefit families and working people.

Existing calls for a rent freeze in NYC have been complicated by jurisdictional disputes with the state. However, local legislators under pressure from their constituencies have continued to push the issue. In early April, Michael Gianaris, a representative of Queens, brought legislation to the floor of the state senate to cancel rent for the duration of the pandemic. On April 17, 2020, congresswoman Ilhan Omar introduced legislation to cancel rent and mortgages nationwide for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, and provide a mechanism for landlords to apply for federal relief. Such a policy architecture lifts the bureaucratic burden from overworked, under-valued, and unemployed individuals. Banks and property managers with the resources and personnel to file claims would instead seek federal relief. This streamlines processing of claims for federal and state employees as well. Community organizations such as People’s Action, Center for Popular Democracy, Citizen Action New York, Community Voices Heard, Housing Justice for All, and Churches United for Fair Housing have supported such an approach. This legislation would establish an Affordable Housing Acquisition Fund to “prevent massive corporate purchases and real estate speculation, like what occurred after the 2008 crisis.” This grants nonprofits, land trusts, community development companies and residents first right of purchase through HUD for a five year period. Purchasers would agree to freeze rent hikes and not to discriminate on the grounds of sexual identity or orientation, gender identity or expression, conviction or arrest record, credit history, or immigration status.

According to the legislation, purchases would agree to provide the benefits that much of nonprofit, community-based, and limited equity cooperative approaches to housing already provide, such as “services that help address the needs of those experiencing chronic homelessness or housing instability — like access to healthcare, employment or education assistance, childcare, financial literacy class and other community-based support services.” These approaches redefine the relationship between residents and property management to serve the needs of the community. These approaches of transitioning housing towards democratic control by residents ultimately require addressing larger structural economic issues.

One such approach gaining recognition is exemplified by the Green New Deal (GND). According to Andres Bernal, a PhD of Public and Urban Policy at the New School, the GND envisions a resource mobilization and employment program at a scale that confronts the developing rent crisis and the need to reshape the economy and collaborate across industry. Recognizing and addressing systemic inequities is only the first step to healing communities. In relation to the pandemic, a GND as proposed by Bernal supporting an economy of care, would protect Americans at the frontlines by creating a care force to sanitize, deliver essential services, and protect the public. It would stimulate the expansion of public employment and support housing goals by retrofitting and upgrading the public housing stock along sustainable, quality, and affordable terms. As also proposed by others, a GND Job Guarantee program would ensure that we do not go back to a broken past but envision a just and dignified future. By encouraging government spending, the program strengthens infrastructure projects by eliminating unemployment and setting a human rights standard for locally sourced, environmentally sustainable, and community valuable work options that build and maintain participation and solidarity. This would allow for the private sector to bounce back, without indulging in magical thinking, while also pressuring for fair working conditions in private firms and working as a stabilizer that keeps the economy from collapsing given the sharp drop in demand. The Green New Deal, which prioritizes housing justice, healthy materials, and contextual vulnerability, is key to transitioning from immediate pandemic relief efforts to rebuilding a more just economy.


Zef Egan is an environmental educator and writer. He is pursuing a masters focused on Environmental and Social Justice at the Graduate Center. @EganZef

Dr. Zbigniew Grabowski’s research focuses on the social, ecological, and technological relationships driving landscape scale patterns of human well being and ecological health with an emphasis on hydrological systems. He is a Research Fellow at the Urban Systems Lab and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. @zjgrabowski

Veronica Olivotto is a researcher, teacher and consultant working on urban climate change adaptation and risk reduction with a keen interest in the politics of decision making in climate resilience at multiple scales. She is a PhD Fellow at the Urban Systems Lab and a PhD candidate in Public and Urban Policy at the New School. @V_Olivotto

Urban Resilience

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Urban Resilience

Essays, analsysis and dispatches from the Urban Systems Lab, a design and practice space at The New School.

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Urban Resilience

Essays, analsysis and dispatches from the Urban Systems Lab, a design and practice space at The New School.

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