Vanessa Raymond-Garcia, RHLS Policy Analyst, testifies before the PA House Committee to address hidden racial disparities in housing.

PA House Policy Subcommittee

Affordable and Stable Housing in a Post-COVID World
Vanessa Raymond-Garcia, Regional Housing Legal Services

June 1, 2021
Hi everyone, my name is Vanessa Raymond-Garcia, Policy Analyst with Regional Housing Legal Services. Thank you to the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee, and this subcommittee, for considering alternative approaches to addressing the critical need for affordable housing and for allowing myself, my colleague Bob Damewood, and the following panel of experts the opportunity to speak on behalf of this urgent issue.

Housing affects all of us. I’m sure there are many of us here today that have felt the effects of housing insecurity in its many forms at some point in our lives, if not currently. However, we know, thanks to substantial research on the issue, that the housing crisis coupled with the pandemic continues to have a disproportionate impact on low-income households, many of whom are people of color. From higher rates of unemployment, to increased risk of death from COVID-19, to challenges with eviction and utility terminations, the housing crisis exacerbated by the public health crisis is not affecting all communities equally.

On average, Pennsylvania’s families need to make more than $19 per hour in order to afford a 2-bedroom apartment. The 18 lowest-wage occupations in the Commonwealth that employ over 1.8 million residents do not pay enough to cover rent for a 2-bedroom apartment; it is important to note all of these jobs also pay more than the state and federal minimum wage. There is a stark difference in income levels between renters and homeowners, where 68% of renter households are low-income, very low-income, or extremely low-income compared to 33% of owner-occupied households. The greatest need exists for extremely low-income renters, or those who make 30% or less of area median income.

In the Commonwealth, more than 420,000 renter households are extremely low income and there exists a shortage of more than 283,000 homes that are affordable and available to these renters. To add insult to injury, over 300,000 renter households in Pennsylvania pay more than half of their income on housing costs, which amounts to a shocking 70% of extremely low-income renters. While incomplete data exists for unhealthy living conditions, low-income households are more likely to live in substandard housing. Research has shown that these households have greater chances of becoming sick due to health hazards in the home and neighborhood as well as having higher rates of infection and death due to COVID-19. Since the onset of the pandemic, these problems have only worsened with sustained high unemployment rates and a patchwork system of emergency assistance.

However, speaking broadly about the housing crisis masks the racial disparities that lie beneath the surface. Oftentimes, these disparities are the result of intentional public policy decisions created with implicit or explicit racial bias. Throughout the mid-20th century, federal, state, and local governments subsidized White homeownership in newly built, appreciating areas through mortgage insurance and infrastructure projects. Redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and other policies excluded Black Americans from the post-war housing boom and drove investment away from Black communities. Urban renewal destroyed Black commercial districts, and governments subsidized Black “rentership” through public housing and HUD multifamily housing. These divergent housing and community development policies magnified racial disparities in ownership, opportunity in access to jobs and quality education, and housing security in protection from rent increases, unhealthy housing conditions, and mass evictions, to name a few. We are still faced with those disparities today. (1)

The latest jobs report published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that unemployment remains high, especially among non-white workers and women. A further analysis shows some of the highest unemployment figures persist in low-wage industries – many of which predominantly hire people from disadvantaged groups, including people of color – and jobs in these industries have remained furthest from pre-pandemic levels. While this is a complex issue, part of the problem of re-entry into the workforce includes a lack of affordable and accessible child-care, wages remaining especially low for low-income families looking to return to work, and lack of affordable healthcare in the era of a pandemic where not everyone has equitable access to a vaccine.

Current data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 13% of renters nationwide are not caught up on their rent, with rates twice as high among non-white groups when compared to white renters. A further breakdown of this data for Pennsylvania shows an estimated 26% of Latino and 18% of Black households are not currently caught up on rent payments, compared to 5% of white renters. There is a lack of acknowledgment of the invisibilized burdens many are facing, especially in marginalized racial and ethnic communities. These statistics translate to what economists have coined a “K-shaped” recovery for years to come, where unemployment will remain high in low-wage sectors if wages remain stagnant and low-income households, disproportionately affecting those who are non-college-educated and non-white, will remain in debt for rent and utility payments unless targeted efforts are made to equitably distribute federal emergency assistance.

On the looming eviction crisis, the latest numbers from the Eviction Lab’s national research shows that in 2016, there were over 2 million eviction filings submitted with close to 900,000 households formally evicted; this data does not account for sealed eviction cases, informal lockouts, illegal evictions, and the like. In 2019, Pennsylvania saw over 6,000 eviction filings. With an eye towards equity, another Eviction Lab national study highlights Black and Latino renters, with women in particular, having higher rates of eviction filings and evictions from their homes.

Based on research by CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University and The Reinvestment Fund, the Commonwealth’s two largest cities see a higher proportion of Black women with children being evicted, following the national trend. These studies also show that holding for other factors, such as income, eviction rates were higher based on race. Despite having the national eviction moratorium instated by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), eviction filings and evictions, formal and informal, have continued throughout the pandemic even here in the Commonwealth. With the national eviction moratorium being lifted at the end of June, the housing crisis is expected to get worse over the coming months and years without an increase of affordable housing. Residents were already struggling to stay safely and affordably housed prior to the pandemic.

Marginalized communities, including people of color, have disproportionately borne the brunt of this struggle created in part by racist housing policies and exacerbated by a global pandemic that has not affected all communities equally. Now more than ever, elected officials charged with the responsibility of allocating and distributing federal dollars at a scale the Commonwealth has never seen before need to meet this urgent moment. The Pennsylvania state legislature has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-evaluate and consider alternative approaches to affordable housing. I’ll hand it off to my colleague Bob Damewood to further discuss the housing landscape in the Commonwealth.

1 Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. First edition. New York; London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.