Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the United States was grappling with a housing crisis that left too many low-income and working Americans without adequate access to a safe, affordable roof over their head. Since 2013, more than 80 percent of the country’s most populous regions have become less affordable to renters, a trend that has disproportionately affected Black and Latino households. Now, two years into the pandemic, the health and economic toll of COVID-19 has only worsened the systemic and structural inequities underlying the country’s ongoing housing crisis.
In January 2021, an estimated 15 million adults faced housing insecurity, with people of color and those with disabilities being overrepresented among this cohort. Additionally, from January 2021 to March 2021, households with children were significantly more likely than households without children to be behind on rental payments. Furthermore, in 2022, as the price of basic goods has sharply increased, so has rent—increasing up to 40 percent in metropolitan areas. With limited safe and affordable housing options, those with low incomes are being forced to live in underserved neighborhoods with limited economic opportunities and social supports, reinforcing a cycle of poverty. Likewise, other disadvantaged communities—such as single parents, people with disabilities, the elderly, and LGBTQI+ individuals—are feeling the strain.
Two years into the pandemic, the health and economic toll of COVID-19 has only worsened the systemic and structural inequities underlying the country’s ongoing housing crisis.
The Biden administration, for its part, has helped people and communities struggling with housing insecurity to weather the worst of the pandemic and the growing housing crisis. This article examines how the administration’s federal housing investments have helped keep millions of Americans in their homes during the pandemic, while also highlighting the policy solutions and interventions needed to deliver on equitable housing outcomes for all.
The ongoing housing crisis: By the numbers
Percentage of country’s most populous regions that have become less affordable to renters since 2013
Number of renters who faced housing insecurity in January 2021
Rise in rent in Portland, Oregon, in 2022, with similar rent increases in other metropolitan areas across the country
Biden’s pivotal housing investments eased burdens during a public health crisis
Building on the pandemic relief of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Biden administration worked with Democrats in Congress to pass the American Rescue Plan (ARP) in March 2021, providing urgently needed housing-related relief and resources for the lowest-income renters as well as people on the brink of homelessness. The legislation did this through a combination of emergency rental assistance, housing vouchers, homelessness assistance programs, homeowner assistance, fair housing activities, housing counseling, and utilities assistance. More than 80 percent of ARP’s emergency rental assistance funds have reached communities most in need, helping households earning 50 percent or less of their area’s median income to stay housed during the pandemic.
The ARP also enabled public housing authorities to partner with Continuum of Care organizations—groups dedicated to building communitywide support to end homelessness—to distribute more than 74 percent of new emergency housing vouchers to households experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Furthermore, the ARP added $4.5 billion to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), helping more than more than 5 million households afford heating and cooling costs during the pandemic, keeping them comfortable even as many struggled through the health fallouts of the pandemic.
Learn more about the ARP’s historic investments
In November 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), providing critical resources to modernize the housing infrastructure. For example, low-income families have long struggled to meet high energy costs; but these costs were amplified during the pandemic, forcing many households to choose between paying for basic needs, such as food, and utility bills. By building on investments made in both the CARES Act and the ARP, the IIJA further focused on making housing more efficient, and thus more affordable, through weatherization, which permanently lower households’ energy bills, making homes safer, healthier, and more comfortable to live in.
Other historic investments that aim to modernize and upgrade housing by making it safer and more resilient include:
- $55 billion to address contaminants in drinking water
- $250 million for an Energy Efficiency Revolving Loan Fund that provides grants and loans to upgrade residential energy efficiency
- $225 million to update and implement building energy codes to make buildings more energy efficient and resilient
- $3.5 billion for the National Flood Insurance Fund to provide flood mitigation assistance for qualifying residential properties within census tracts
The housing-related investments made by Congress and the Biden administration demonstrate the power of the federal government to ease the burden of housing costs for millions of struggling households.
In addition to housing investments, the IIJA provides resources to bolster transportation—a critical need in low-income communities, where a lack of accessible transportation options can lock individuals out of economic opportunity. In particular, the IIJA’s billion-dollar investment in the Reconnecting Communities program would take important steps to rectify decades of devastating exclusionary policies that allowed highway systems to be built through thriving Black neighborhoods, hampering healthy communities and local economic development. Such policies caused waves of displacement, the economic and social effects of which are still felt today. Fortunately, the IIJA’s investments will help to more effectively connect low-income and often racially segregated communities to economic opportunity and other resources that are essential to building healthy communities.
Sustaining pandemic-relief investments is critical to addressing stark housing inequities
While the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan provided tremendous emergency supports for low- to moderate-income households at a time when remaining housed was a critical public health issue, additional investments are needed to build a long-term, sustainable housing system that meets the needs of all individuals and families. Indeed, high rents across the country are causing rental housing to become increasingly out of reach for millions of low income and working Americans.
Recognizing this problem, on May 16, 2022, the Biden administration released its Housing Supply Action Plan, calling on federal, state, and local governments to engage in an all-hands-on deck effort to address the nation’s insufficient housing supply. The plan addresses many shortcomings of the U.S. housing infrastructure, from the fragmented nature of funding sources to the need to create and preserve thousands of affordable housing units to restrictive zoning and land use regulations. The Biden administration also plans to leverage existing ARP funds to further expand state and local fiscal recovery funds (SLFRF) and the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC), which help preserve existing affordable housing, offer rental subsidies, support home repairs, and more.
Building equity-focused communities that enable individuals and households to thrive, not just survive, requires bold action and collective commitment from stakeholders at every level of government.
The housing-related investments made by Congress and the Biden administration demonstrate the power of the federal government to ease the burden of housing costs for millions of struggling households, helping to foster more equitable and sustainable communities in the long term. But these investments by themselves are not enough; building equity-focused communities that enable individuals and households to thrive, not just survive, requires bold action and collective commitment from stakeholders at every level of government.
Policymakers agree. In recent months, a spate of legislation has been introduced to boost housing safety, affordability, access, and resilience. While many of these bills have little chance of passing in the near future as Congress deals with more pressing issues of the day—including the January 6 insurrection, gun control, and midterm elections—they offer a path forward, addressing the complexities of the housing crisis through multifaceted, targeted approaches that meet the unique needs of individuals, households, and communities.
Take, for example, the down payment requirements to purchase a home: Down payments remain a barrier for many first-time homebuyers, especially those who don’t have significant generational wealth to ease the way. Moreover, during the pandemic, low interest rates drove up demand for home purchases, and well-off homebuyers were able to take advantage of the opportunity. Unfortunately, this precluded individuals who lacked intergenerational wealth, did not have hefty savings, or experienced pandemic-related job losses.
[A spate of recent legislation addresses] the complexities of the housing crisis through multifaceted, targeted approaches that meet the unique needs of individuals, households, and communities.
The Downpayment Toward Equity Act (H.R. 4495, S. 2920), sponsored by House Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters (D-CA), would allow for all first-generation homebuyers—who are disproportionately Black and Hispanic—to purchase a home by providing financial assistance for potential down payments, along with housing counseling. In late June 2022, the House Financial Services Committee advanced this bill to reduce housing costs and put first-generation households on the path to homeownership.
Other bills focus on increasing equity in the housing market. Currently, under federal law, landlords may freely reject tenants who rely on housing vouchers. A critical way to protect these tenants is through the Housing Fairness Act of 2021 (H.R. 68, S. 769), co-sponsored by Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). This legislation would prevent discriminatory housing practices through the Fair Housing Initiatives Program, strengthening fair housing programs at the state and local level. Additionally, the Fair Housing Improvement Act of 2022, recently reintroduced by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), would amend the Fair Housing Act to prohibit housing discrimination based on source of income, veteran status, and military status.
Similarly, improved policy solutions are needed to better protect tenants at risk of eviction. At the federal level, for instance, the bipartisan Eviction Crisis Act (S. 2182) includes several provisions that would better address the severity of the eviction issues facing households, especially families with children. Co-sponsored by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rob Portman (R-OH), this legislation would protect tenants by tracking national data on evictions, establishing a permanent Emergency Assistance Fund to provide financial assistance to tenants at risk of eviction, and increasing funds to support tenants in obtaining legal representation.
Although housing is a necessity on par with clean air and water, it is increasingly difficult to attain for millions of households. Safe and stable housing is imperative to building financial stability, allowing individuals and families to thrive and prosper. While pandemic-related and post-pandemic investments from the Biden administration have helped people weather the worst of the housing crisis over the past few years, COVID-19 has pointed to a growing housing crisis and unmet need.
One thing is clear: The country needs to focus on creating equitable, sustainable housing options for all people, but especially for historically disadvantaged communities. Policymakers must do the right thing and invest in housing infrastructure that allows everyone a chance to succeed.