The Housing Crisis is a Public Health Crisis

Nearly one in five renters in North Carolina is behind on their rent. 

Disproportionately but certainly not exclusively Black and Latino households, there are mothers and fathers, senior citizens and students, paying a little here, a little there, and trying to figure out how to make ends meet. And tis has been going on for too long. 

There are about 300,000 fewer jobs today than there were a year ago in North Carolina, before the start of the COVID-19 recession. That’s a 7.5% drop in total employment — the biggest decline in the southern United States. Even more families that we talk to at Down Home may have managed to keep their jobs, but have lost wages. Take for example Sara, a single mother in Jackson County, who has been able to stay on at the diner where she works, but with only half the hours she needs to pay her bills. 

One of those bills that Sara– like all of us– needs to pay is for the house that keeps her family safe and well. According to the North Carolina Justice Center, working families like Sara’s need to make at least $36,751 in North Carolina to afford a 2 bedroom rental. What this means is that even without a deadly pandemic and ravaged economy, 70% of North Carolina renters with extremely low incomes spend more than half their earnings on housing — leaving the rest to cover all food, utilities, car payments, gas, and doctor bills. 

Plainly put, housing is unaffordable for nearly half of North County renters.

If the average North Carolina family’s finances were already upside down, the pandemic has made things not just bad, but potentially deadly. The Carolina Public Press reports that 485,00 North Carolinians are behind in their rent as of January 2021. It is currently estimated that the households behind in rent owe between $34 billion to $70 billion to their landlords– many of whom also have bills piled up and due. Without continued federal intervention and financial help, up to 30 million to 40 million renters could lose their homes nationally.

In the midst of a public health crisis, it is critical that families have a home in which to shelter to prevent further spread of this dangerous virus.

A failure to address this massive housing crisis does not only impact the families that could be rendered homeless but also all of us: This pandemic has demonstrated how interconnected we all are when it comes to public health. Without healthy, safe neighbors, none of us are healthy or safe.  

To meet this incredible challenge, we need both increased eviction protections and accompanying housing assistance that meets the scale of the incredible need in our state. 

Moratoriums on evictions have been passed both at the Federal and the State level, and Governor Cooper designated funds through the HOPE program to help renters across North Carolina. These moratoriums and programs have undoubtedly helped protect many renters, however, they are being unevenly enforced and have created a patchwork of hard-to-navigate protections that fall far short of the actual need. 41,000 individuals applied for NC’s HOPE funds and 34,300 received funding assistance. The applications had to be shut down in November, 2020, leaving Tanya (name changed for privacy) — a Down Home member in Alamance County– waitlisted when she was facing eviction in December. She remains in her apartment today with no power or heat, hoping each day when she wakes up that it isn’t the last day with a home. 

We are facing a real housing crisis in rural North Carolina.

Some of the counties hardest hit with job losses are rural communities that were already facing a severe shortage of affordable housing stock. Take for example Haywood County which has experienced a -8.1% unemployment change since the beginning of the COVID-19 recession, but where rental costs have risen 24% since 2017, according to a presentation by the Affordable Housing Task Force in January 2020. Down Home organizers on the ground in Haywood say not only are local residents behind in rent but if they lose their housing it is near impossible to find a new place that they can afford. 

Failing to keep people in safe, healthy housing is a public health crisis on its own, but it is also exacerbating the current pandemic. People who lose their housing or need to find less expensive housing often end up living doubled up with other families, in shelters, or in other settings with close proximity to others: All a danger when we some of the most common advice during the pandemic is to maintain physical distance. Researchers have concluded that, had moratoriums been implemented as early as March 1, 2020 nationwide, it would have resulted in a 14.2% decrease in COVID-19 cases, and as high as a 40.7% drop in deaths. 

North Carolina families should never have been put in this situation. Our neighbors are having to decide between catching up on back-rent and paying for other basic needs like electricity, water, groceries, and medicine. The impact then moves to landlords, who struggle with maintaining their mortgage payments if there is no rent being paid. Our local economies will continue to be in crisis as families and rental-property owners are not putting funds back into the community; like purchasing groceries and household necessities, or paying for medical and childcare. Failing to help our communities in the most fundamental ways compounds disaster upon disaster and impacts all of us as we try to move forward. 

As one Down Home member recently explained, she has stopped paying for her house but continues to pay for her car because she figures her car could be her next home if she is evicted. She is 23; smart, young, vibrant, and she should be looking towards a future that doesn’t involve sleeping in her car during a deadly pandemic. No one should have to be making plans that dire when solutions could be offered. 

It’s time to take action.

We are calling on our legislators to explore every option, turn over every rock, and take action to create comprehensive solutions that will have long-lasting results for our communities. 

One such solution right now is for the NCGA to release all available unreserved funds to help families like Sara’s and people like Tanya to pay their rent. North Carolina has $4.4 billion in “Rainy Day” and other funds that needs to be released for pandemic relief NOW. The rainy day is clearly here. 

Contact your representative here to demand that the NCGA release the funds.

Are you facing eviction or need help? Learn more about the CDC moratorium here.