Pandemic-Induced Rent Debt Crisis Threatens Housing Stability

Low-Wage Workers and Communities of Color Disproportionately Affected

By Dolores Quintana 

Rental debt is an out-of-control problem that has worsened since the Covid 19 pandemic. So many lost their jobs, sometimes only temporarily, some permanently, that rental debt has ballooned in a way that is causing a huge problem that must be dealt with now that local municipalities are ending their Covid protections and the end of the Federal Covid emergency.

Many renters are lower-income workers who cannot save money, live from paycheck to paycheck and are frequently and inordinately people of color. The Supreme Court rejected the Federal emergency eviction moratorium in September 2021, so protections are no longer in place for individuals and families who may have large amounts of back rent that they have no way to pay their landlords.

The danger of mass evictions is real.

In the United States, the estimated total rent debt, according to the National Equity Atlas, is $11,433,200 billion, with $5,271,000 million households who are still behind on rent, with $5,491,000 children in those households that are behind in rent payments. It’s a grand total of 15% of American households who are still behind on rent as of April 1, 2023. 

Of those households who are behind on rent, 66% of those households are people of color, 47% of those households are currently unemployed, 79% of those households are low-income, and 53% of those households have children. By June 2022, 64% of those renters had not applied for rental assistance. Of those households who did apply for assistance, 13% were denied, 12% were granted and received assistance, and 11% were still waiting to hear if they would be granted rental assistance. Most of the households with unpaid back rent are those whose earnings are below $50,000 a year, qualifying them for rental assistance. 

Even before the pandemic, people of color were those who were most likely to be housing insecure. The statistics gathered by the National Equity Atlas show that 46% of Black households were housing insecure, 45% of Latino households were housing insecure, 42% of Native American households were housing insecure, 43% of people in color as a general category were housing insecure, 38% of mixed or other households were housing insecure, 30% of Asian households were housing insecure, and 32% of white households were housing insecure. 

Los Angeles County’s total number of households behind on rent is estimated at 270,810. The total rent debt is estimated at $925,700,000. The rent debt per household is estimated at $3,400, and the number of children in households behind on rent is estimated at 280,900. 

In the city of Los Angeles, it is estimated that there are 133,210 households behind on rent, that there is $425,420,000 in unpaid rental debt, with an estimated $3,200 of rental debt per household and 138,400 children in households that are behind on rental debts. 

In the city of Santa Monica, it is estimated that there are 3,710 households behind on rent, a total of $14,310,000, with an estimated $3,900 of rent owed and 4,100 children in households with unpaid rental debt. Both West Hollywood and the city of Inglewood have estimated totals that are slightly less than Santa Monica, West Hollywood’s total estimated unpaid rent is  $9,250,000 and Inglewood’s is $12,630,000. It is possible that those totals might be slightly less based on rental prices in the other areas, but the true reason for the discrepancy is not known. 

This data comes from the Census Pulse survey and the National Equity Atlas noted that the 2017 American Housing Survey found that about seven percent of renters could not pay some or all of their rent. It is clear that the problem is not new but has been exacerbated by the toll of the pandemic years. The National Equity Atlas explained their methodology here

It seems clear that unless something is done, people in these households are gravely at risk for eviction at some point without any way to pay back rent. This could cause a crisis that would only worsen the current situation of unhoused Americans and is something that must be addressed because, without help, they will have nowhere to turn.

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