America is designed to have a housing crisis: Opinion

When the federal eviction moratorium ends on July 31, many families across the country will face the real and sudden threat of losing their homes. Millions of people will be affected, and those most likely to face eviction are households headed by women of color and households with children.

Safe, stable and affordable homes in neighborhoods of opportunity improve people’s health and wellbeing and their economic prospects. As a pediatrician and long-time housing advocate, we both have seen how the inverse is true: children and families suffer when economic insecurity and high housing costs force them from home to home or shelter to shelter. When their neighborhoods are not safe. When children don’t have the stability to make friends or have the same teacher for a full school year. When the cost of housing must take precedence over the cost of healthy food, medicine, heat or fuel.

PHOTO: Kristi Phillips, 47, takes a break with daughter Shyann Slain, 7, while cleaning her kitchenette inside the Residence Inn by Marriott where she has been living with her family in Sacramento, Calif., May 28, 2021.

The physical and mental health toll is profound.

We also know that in America, housing is a case study in structural inequity. Decades of policies and practices have created and perpetuated widespread community segregation by race and income, compounded by systemic public and private disinvestment resulting in concentrated poverty. These disenfranchised and neglected communities overwhelmingly lack access to quality education, well-paying jobs, and adequate transit. Structural and interpersonal racism—past and present—has also exacerbated fiscal and health inequities nationwide.

To break the cycle, we must dismantle the broken systems that fuel inequity and invest in long-term solutions. If the United States can address the acute needs of the pandemic and lay the groundwork for a better future, we can end homelessness and housing insecurity, as audacious as that might sound. As a nation, we simply have not invested enough political will or dollars to disassemble barriers born of racism and intergenerational poverty. The federal dollars to seed this work have arrived; now state and local leaders must act.

PHOTO: Workers remove belongings from a residence during an eviction in the unincorporated community of Galloway on March 3, 2021, outside Columbus, Ohio.

From redlining to predatory lending

Many disparities we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic—from the ability to safely shelter-in-place at home to inequities in both virtual and in-person education to unemployment rates—are intimately connected to longstanding housing inequities.

The insidious practice of redlining Black neighborhoods, denying people credit to buy homes, for example, has left deep scars in communities while imperiling the health of millions. Some neighborhoods redlined nearly a century ago are today highly vulnerable to disasters and walled off from opportunity. Substandard housing is a major cause of childhood asthma. High housing costs force many people to make the choice between paying the rent or paying for medical treatment and leads many to financial distress or inadequate care. Eviction’s health impacts include poor birth outcomes; anxiety, depression and other mental health effects; and curtailed access to care. Neighborhood racial and economic segregation often limits access to good schools, jobs and health care.

The widening gap between wage growth and housing costs is a key culprit. Even before the pandemic, not a single state had enough affordable and available housing for low-income renters. For about 18 million families, housing costs total half or more of income. Meanwhile, U.S. housing supply is short 3.8 million units, and today’s tighter market disproportionately harms people of color and lower-income families. People of color are far less likely than white people to own homes, far more likely to shoulder higher housing cost burdens, and, as a result, are shut out of opportunities to build wealth and improve health. Black Americans are still regularly and disproportionately targeted by predatory lenders and locked out of neighborhood opportunities.

PHOTO: Items are removed from a home during an eviction in the unincorporated community of Galloway on March 3, 2021, outside Columbus, Ohio.

Where change must happen

As the eviction moratorium expires, we must first get into people’s hands the American Rescue Plan Act’s more than $40 billion for renter and homeowner assistance. Just as important, state and city leaders should use the $350 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds directed to their governments to increase housing affordability and quality. Additionally, to usher in permanent solutions beyond the current crisis, they can help increase the affordable housing supply by supporting policies that would enable the construction of entry-level affordable homes and affordable rentals in communities of opportunity; preserving and rehabbing existing homes and rentals; reducing development costs and making land more affordable; ensuring renter and homeowner stability; and protecting people against displacement.

We must close the Black homeownership gap within a generation; invest in distressed, racially segregated communities; and eliminate policies, such as zoning laws, that perpetuate racial and socioeconomic segregation. Instead, we need policies that support people of different races and income levels while empowering them to make choices about where to call home. All people should have the same opportunities to thrive. Diversity is America’s strength.

In all of these policymaking discussions, the people most affected by the nation’s housing failures must be central. They have insights into what leads to housing instability and what they and their communities need to afford and be secure in their homes.

With federal COVID-19 recovery funding and the fresh memory of housing strains that surfaced during this pandemic, the United States has an opportunity to move beyond the litany of unrealized promises and actually enable fair housing for all. This is one clear way our nation can move beyond racism to create a healthier and more equitable future.

Richard E. Besser is president and CEO of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Jonathan T.M. Reckford is CEO of Habitat for Humanity International. Their opinions are not those of ABC News.

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