Where You Live Dictates How You Live: Affordable Housing is Essential for Upward Mobility
When I was young, my parents divorced, and my mother had to raise three daughters on one income. We moved four times while I was in elementary school. While I didn’t understand it as a child, these were strategic mobility moves by my mom to relocate our family to places that were increasingly safer and offered more potential than the last. Something positive was happening in my life. My mother had a plan.
We eventually settled in a neighborhood that gave me roots from 6th grade to college. It was like everything was shiny, from the schools to the stores. My mother was determined to change our family trajectory and she did. I learned a lifelong lesson through her strategic moves: where you live dictates how you live.
My experience isn’t an isolated one. Research shows that where you live influences your access to healthcare, education, safety and more. As noted in Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights groundbreaking Opportunity Altas, moving from below-average to an above-average upward mobility neighborhood increases the lifetime earnings of a child growing up in a low-income family by $200,000, and decreases the likelihood that children end up incarcerated, or give birth during their teen years. Improving access to affordable and sustainable housing increases access to economic and social mobility.
Even before the pandemic and economic recession, too many families were already struggling. In 2019, renters comprised over one third of America’s 122 million households. Almost half of those renter households were categorized as “housing cost burdened,” spending more than 30 percent of income on rent. A quarter spent more than half of their income on housing. These factors contributed to a national average of 3.6 million evictions annually between 2010-2019. These evictions also disproportionately affected communities of color and women. Princeton University’s Eviction Lab data shows that Black renters are twice as likely than white renters to experience eviction and women are more often evicted than men. Every day people are forced to make heartbreaking decisions—to pay the rent or buy groceries. Finding stability between housing and earnings is far more elusive now than it was for my mother years ago.
During the pandemic, the lack of affordable housing became even more urgent as catastrophic job losses exacerbated households’ tenuous financial stability. Without policy interventions, initial estimates projected that 29 to 43 percent of renter households could be at risk of eviction in 2020 alone. Even the state and federal policies created in response to the pandemic did not initially take into account the financial circumstances affecting non-traditional workers, gig workers, tipped workers, and those who did not qualify for unemployment benefits. For cost-burdened individuals and families, additional factors such as the loss of childcare due to school closings; lack of access to healthcare; limited transportation and other basic needs, were too much to cover on top of housing expenses. For some, food became a second or third priority.
In response to the growing housing crisis, many states and municipalities swung into action using federal rescue funds to prevent evictions. One such effort is in Washington’s King County where the King County Eviction Prevention and Rental Assistance Program distributed $37 million in rental assistance from August, 2020 through April, 2021. In May 2021, Congress provided another $145 million in funding for rental assistance provided through the Federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.
In El Paso, Tex., $7 million in federal, state, and local funding in 2020 helped to support the Paso del Norte Community Foundation’s EP Rent Help Program in providing rental assistance to local landlords of residential rental properties and tenants experiencing economic hardship as a result of COVID-19. The program received an additional $13 million in federal funding in 2021. Across the country, the eviction moratorium established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed thousands of families to also avoid eviction. The moratorium and emergency eviction prevention programs helped to prevent homelessness and other devastating situations, such as substandard living conditions, poor physical and mental health and safety, academic decline and trauma for children, unemployment, and negative impacts on credit scores.
The unavailability of affordable housing is a significant hurdle for social and economic mobility. Addressing affordable housing can create positive outcomes for future generations. According to research from Opportunity Insights, finding and acquiring affordable housing in neighborhoods with a track record of increased opportunities for social and economic mobility can prove challenging for low-income families. However, providing low-income families with pathways to neighborhoods with quality schools, family-sustaining employment, and more opportunities for social connectedness through recreational and community activities can lead to lifelong gains for youth, including college access and better employment outcomes.
More policies are needed to address gaps in housing access and affordability, as well as other connective social impacts such as employment, education, childcare, and transportation. Comprehensive community development must engage diverse public and private partners, and those impacted most. Service providers need funding and support in connecting families with a holistic array of resources that will enable families to thrive.
Creative public/private partnerships can also help to address the lack of affordable housing. For example, the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF), a national nonprofit community development financial institution, works with communities to provide public and private investments that increase the supply of affordable housing.
To plan for the long-term creation of more affordable housing, we must expand data resources that provide a more accurate picture of the affordable housing landscape and affordability gaps. We also need additional funding for more accurate data tracking national eviction rates. Currently, the only data that the federal government collects about eviction is for public housing. There is no federal database of nationwide evictions.
Long-term solutions for expanding affordable housing will require collaboration, leveraging multiple funding sources, reimagining lending decisions, and introducing innovative financial products that can help ensure the nation’s existing stock of affordable housing remains intact and habitable while also building a supply of new homes to address inventory shortages. We must plan now for the future. The ground we break today can create pathways to economic mobility for millions of children and families tomorrow.
Edna Primrose is the Assistant Director of Policy for the Education and Society Program at the Aspen Institute. In this role, she leads programs that seek to address poverty in America by fostering connections across education, economic and social mobility, and equity. Prior to joining Aspen, Ms. Primrose served as Assistant Administrator for Water and Environmental Programs and Chief Operating Officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She led national programs to enhance rural communities’ access to water and waste infrastructure and promote education and workforce initiatives. Ms. Primrose also served over a decade in local and national leadership positions, including National Director, for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Corps Program, a national education and training program for low-income youth. She began her career in the labor movement, managing training and equity programs in the construction industry. She has served on distinguished Governance Boards and Councils that included the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, a White House initiative, and Advisor for the United States Federal Committee on Apprenticeship. She currently serves on multiple boards at her alma mater, Towson University.