The affordable-housing crisis in America was bad enough before the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly a third of households in the U.S. are renters, and almost half of those households pay more than 30% of their income for housing. Before a federal moratorium was put in place last fall, up to 40 million people were at risk of eviction due to the economic shock of the pandemic. That risk may not be going away anytime soon.
One of the reasons for these stark numbers is the shortage of housing that’s actually affordable to those with low incomes. The stock of permanently affordable public housing has been dwindling since its mid-century heyday, with just 1.2 million federally built public housing units left. Other affordably priced housing—much of which is developed by the private sector through tax credits and government subsidies—falls far short of providing the roughly 7 million homes needed by people with very low incomes. Of the 20 million cost-burdened households in the U.S., only about a quarter receive government housing assistance in any form.
A growing number of cities are stepping up to meet this need by exploring new ways of building affordable housing and preserving what already exists. The pandemic has created the conditions for cities to more boldly invest in their own affordable housing stock and take more control over the market forces that have caused prices to skyrocket.