City Monitor’s inaugural Housing Security Index has identified US metropolitan areas at high risk for housing insecurity amid the Covid-19 pandemic. An analysis of data related to housing and economic security, as well as research into ways cities use available resources and collaborate with community organisations to address housing issues, has allowed us to identify the top 20 US metros most at risk of experiencing devastating, long-term effects to residents’ housing stability.
Many of the 84 metros we analysed that are at greatest risk come as no surprise to those familiar with the US housing crisis. Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco have all been plagued by housing affordability crises for years. But our analysis – which includes current and historic eviction rates, unemployment, workforce participation measures, GDP growth and industry-specific employment – puts the likes of Myrtle Beach, Springfield and New Orleans in the higher-risk category too. (Read more about our methodology.)
As stopgap eviction moratoriums expire across the United States and CARES Act funding dries up, many residents in these cities will begin feeling the full effects that Covid-19 has had and will continue to have on their ability to keep up with monthly housing expenses.
To combat future instability, state and local governments should prioritise enacting policies that provide longer-term solutions, augmenting current efforts with available resources and tracking and interpreting data that comes out of the pandemic.
|20 MOST HOUSING-SECURE US METRO AREAS||20 LEAST HOUSING-SECURE US METRO AREAS|
Metros in California are particularly burdened by housing insecurity. Of the 20 least housing-secure US metros on our index, half are in California. The California Association of Realtors estimates that currently only 33% of Californians can afford to purchase a median-priced home. That’s compared with 57% of the US as a whole.
In Los Angeles, the least housing-secure metro, according to our index, homeowners earning median incomes spend about 39% of that income on mortgage payments, while median-income renters spend 46% of their income on rent. The average for all US metros over 500,000 in population is 17% income on mortgage payments and 28% on rent.
Additionally, 43% of LA homeowners are “mortgage burdened”, meaning they spend 30% or more of household income on mortgage costs. Rent burdens 58% of renters in the metro, with 1.26 million households and 3.57 million people paying more than 30% of their income on rent.
By contrast, homeowners in Ogden, Utah – the most housing-secure metro on our index – spend on average 19% of income on mortgage payments. Ogden renters spend 24% of their income on rent. Mortgage costs burden about 22% of homeowners in Ogden, and rent costs burden 41% of renters.
According to housing affordability data from Zillow, since 2010, mortgage affordability in the 20 least housing-secure metros on our US index has gotten worse, and rent affordability has remained consistently high. By contrast, in the 20 most housing-secure metros on our US index, mortgages have remained reasonably affordable, and rents have become increasingly more affordable over the same time period.
In 2010, US homeowners making median incomes overall paid 16.5% of that income toward monthly mortgage payments. In 2019, that percentage rose to 17.4%. In the 20 most housing-secure metros on our US index, the average in 2010 was 13.6%, which fell to 13% in 2019. In the 20 least housing-secure metros on our US index, homeowners paid 21.4% of household income on mortgage payments in 2010 and 25.5% in 2019.
In terms of rents, US renters earning median incomes overall paid 28.7% of monthly earnings on rent in 2010, a number that fell to 27.5% in 2019. In the 20 most housing-secure metros on our US index, however, rent accounted for just 26.2% of monthly income in 2010 and 23.7% in 2019. The 20 least housing-secure metros on our US index saw virtually no movement in rent affordability between the 2010 average of 34.8% and the 2019 average of 34.2%.
But housing affordability is useful only when there are jobs and economies to support residents.
Jobs and economy
All US metro areas have experienced increases in unemployment rates during the pandemic. Metros at the bottom of our US index not only have higher unemployment in 2020 but also saw greater increases in unemployment between 2019 and 2020. Unemployment rose by 10 percentage points during the year to June 2020 in those metros, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most housing-secure metros on our US index saw an increase of six percentage points.
Most of the metros with the worst increases in unemployment rates are destination locations such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Orlando. Los Angeles went from 4% to 18.1% unemployment, Las Vegas from 4.1% to 18% and Orlando from 2.9% to 16.5%.
Metros with high dependence on jobs in accommodation and food service were more likely to find themselves scoring poorly on our index. In Las Vegas, as many as 29% of private-sector employees work in those industries. In Myrtle Beach, it’s 26%, Honolulu 18%, New Orleans 17% and Orlando 16%.
It is important to note that while this index attempts to identify the most and least vulnerable US metro areas in terms of housing security, it does not claim that any city is “safe” from evictions and mortgage foreclosures. For example, Boston did not make it onto our list of the 20 metros with the greatest housing insecurity because it scored well on factors such as low eviction rates, high GDP growth and low dependence on jobs in accommodation and food. It did, however, see the biggest rise in the unemployment rate of any metro between 2019 and June 2020. Many of the more than 380,000 newly unemployed Boston residents are certain to face financial uncertainty – including evictions and home foreclosures – unless local, state and federal governments implement robust assistance programs and protections.
Many have compared the Covid-era economy to the Great Recession economy. While our index calculations looked at labour force participation rates in 2019 or the percentage of a metro area that was employed or looking for a job, it did not take into account changes over time in labour force participation rates. Even so, cities on the bottom of our index had slower growth and more variability between pre-recession (2006) and pre-Covid (2019) labour force recovery than the cities at the top of our index.
Cities such as Louisville, ranked eighth-most-secure on our index, experienced labour force boosts post-recession when big corporations such as Amazon set up factories nearby. On the other side of the coin are cities such as San Francisco, ranked tenth-least-secure, which also experienced a post-recession boost in labour force participation, but one led by specialised, high-paying tech firms, which ultimately contributed to a housing crisis where mainly those with the high-paying tech jobs could afford to buy or rent housing in the city.
It is likely that many of the jobs lost in the US due to Covid-19 will not return. A June 2020 report from the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago estimates that between “32-42% of Covid-induced layoffs will be permanent”. For just the ten most populous metros, that could mean between 1.19 million and 1.56 million workers looking for new employment.
But jobs may not be available for those who are looking. In addition to business closures across all sectors, a recent report from the Brookings Institution warns that robots may be lurking in the shadows of this recession, ready to snatch up much-needed jobs with promises of efficiency and cost reduction for struggling businesses. “Automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline,” the report notes.
Automation may serve another Covid-specific need as well: compliance with health and safety policies.
The importance of data
Most of the datasets we used in our index speak to preconditions for housing insecurity. They point to cities where the preexisting conditions of the housing market and economy make them vulnerable to evictions, home foreclosures and general housing destabilisation due to Covid.
But the reality of housing insecurity for many US cities this year will depend on the timeliness and sustainability of the decisions of local, state and federal leaders and will only bear out in future datasets. Cities that track data points as they begin to accrue will be better positioned to make targeted decisions on how to use available funding and how to form important policy.
The Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab to produce data-driven explainers of housing concerns in Pittsburgh, such as the transportation burden among residents who cannot afford housing in the city centre and housing instability among poor and minority residents. The commission not only uses these explainers internally to better understand Pittsburgh residents’ needs but will also be turning them into informational videos that they will share with residents via televised public-service announcements, social media and other media.
The commission is able to create these videos because of a grant it received from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, available only to jurisdictions participating in the Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP). FHAP is a program available to any US state or local housing agency whose laws are “substantially equivalent” to the Fair Housing Act. Housing agencies that do not meet the standards for this program or that have been suspended from the program due to lack of compliance are not eligible.
“It’s even more of a reason why I think it’s important to put local dollars towards commissions on human rights or human relations,” Megan Stanley, executive director of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, told City Monitor. “Because when they’re fully funded and staffed, they can become a FHAP, and becoming a FHAP is a way to both get money to pay for those staff but also to get these unique grants and partnership opportunities to really scale the work to match the problem that exists.”
Stanley and other housing experts stressed the importance of data regarding understanding and dealing with the complexities of a city’s housing issues.
However, the Trump administration has been undermining that importance by gutting the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. In addition to mandating the identification of housing inequities and developing plans to address them, the AFFH provides data-driven tools that assist agencies in identifying and understanding their specific housing issues.
In January 2018, the Trump administration told cities use of the data tool was no longer necessary. It also extended the due date for housing inequity plans by two years, effectively rendering the mandated report ineffectual.
In addition to developing data-driven solutions, cities are looking to innovative housing and economic solutions that engage the community.
Des Moines’ emergency food distribution program payed restaurants to provide free meals to low- and moderate-income families. This sort of twofold fund allocation helps support local businesses so they can continue generating tax revenue and provide jobs to the nearly 10% of Des Moines’ working population employed in the accommodations and food service industries. It also helps provide essential support to vulnerable populations.
Chicago is taking a unique approach to keeping restaurants in business and its more than 390,000 leisure and hospitality workers employed. In addition to loosening restrictions on outdoor dining, the city is calling on its residents to devise a plan to keep outdoor seating viable throughout the cold, long winter months. “Having restaurants survive this crisis is really important for cities across the country… Officials realise the importance of the restaurant industry,” Mike Whatley, National Restaurant Association vice president for state and local affairs, told Smart Cities Dive in August.
Chicago was not included in our index due to missing data, but according to a BLS report, the metro lost 233,800 leisure and hospitality jobs between May 2019 and May 2020.
Covid is exacerbating housing problems. In addition to local governments enacting sustainable policies and programs to combat housing and economic instability, substantial federal funding to assist localities in developing these programs is essential.
City Monitor will be examining the issue of housing security amid the Covid-19 pandemic in additional countries and global regions in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more iterations of our Housing Security Index.
Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter for City Monitor.
Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter for City Monitor.