Last month, a fire in Quincy left a family without a permanent home. Ya Shan Weng, 48, moved to Boston seven years ago and had been living in the house with her family. Most of the family’s belongings were damaged by the fire, and the house itself was no longer livable. Their landlord found another place in Quincy to temporarily house them until they secure a new place to live, but they have to share it with three other families, and Weng isn’t sure how long they’ll be able to stay there.
Searching for a home in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic is not easy. For Weng, whose husband and daughter both lost their jobs because of the pandemic, it seems impossible. So far, the rent for available places she has seen range from $1,800 to $2,000 a month, and her monthly earnings — the only income that the family has at the moment — is just over $2,000. Weng is relying on getting rental assistance, but in spite of some stopgap measures from both the federal government and the state aimed at helping people like her, finding long-term affordable housing is still proving to be a nightmare.
The lack of affordable housing in many American cities is just one of the many things that the pandemic has not only shed light on but exacerbated. Weng says that she’s now on a waitlist for subsidized housing, though she doubts that she’ll get off of it anytime soon. She told me that before the pandemic, one of her friends was ninth on a waiting list and still had to wait three years; her wait-list number is 45, and the pandemic has only slowed the turnover rates at many of these places. (Back in July, a single organization with affordable housing units in Boston had a waiting list of 17,000.)
Housing assistance programs tailored for COVID-19 relief — like the federal eviction moratorium, which is set to expire at the end of the year, or Governor Charlie Baker’s rental relief plan — are not enough to stymie the impending crises of homelessness and housing affordability. While these programs are certainly helpful in the short term if they are well funded (many are not), they will ultimately fail if they’re not coupled with an ambitious long-term plan to build and invest in equitable and affordable housing.
The COVID recession, which prompted some residents with the financial means to flee cities for more space in the suburbs, has created a lopsided housing problem: A rise in luxury-apartment vacancies has granted well-to-do renters more leverage with their landlords to negotiate lower rents, while increasing demand for affordable units is squeezing middle- and low-income renters out of housing altogether. This phenomenon was already plaguing high-cost cities like New York, but other metro areas are starting to see a similar dynamic unfold. Increasing funding for housing vouchers — and creating a better way to determine how much rent those vouchers will cover — would allow many families to find long-term, sustainable housing. (This federal approach would be in line with President-elect Joe Biden’s ambitious housing plan from the campaign.)
But while it seems obvious that cities, states, and the federal government should all be doubling down on investing in affordable housing and the infrastructure required to make those homes equitable — like building more residential units around broad and reliable transit networks, which would increase people’s mobility and access to manageable commutes — many lawmakers across the country have moved in the opposite direction. Some cities plan to cut funding for affordable housing next year, and public transit agencies in Boston and Washington, D.C., have made shortsighted proposals to dramatically reduce their public transit budgets by suspending weekend service and late-night trains, which would disproportionately impact lower-wage service-sector workers.
Many of these cuts could easily be averted if federal lawmakers pass another stimulus package that allocates funds for housing and public transit, but Congress has been unwilling to pass a new relief bill for several months. Without a coordinated effort from federal and local governments to invest in affordable housing, families like Weng’s may well be staring down the barrel of homelessness and all the economic and social hardships that accompany it.
That outcome, however, is not inevitable. But unless they reverse course soon, it seems to be a path that lawmakers are actively choosing to go down.