The longstanding housing affordability crisis in the United States entered a new stage of urgency in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic sparked an economic and public health emergency that threatened the housing stability and the lives of millions of renters. Many people faced eviction for the first time, while those in shelters or camping in public spaces found it impossible to self-quarantine.
Prior to the onset of COVID-19, Black and Indigenous people and people of color were already facing disproportionate housing cost burdens and housing instability that were rooted in a history of structural racism and discriminatory housing practices. COVID-19 made clear the link between housing and health. Individual and public health were endangered as millions of renters – predominantly people of color – struggled to remain safely and stably housed throughout the pandemic. Many low-income renters who had struggled to pay rent before the COVID-19 crisis were left at even greater risk due to job losses, increased expenses, and the resulting rental debt that built up over the pandemic. By January 2021, at least 9 million renter households were estimated to owe up to $50 billion in rent and utility bills and were at high risk of losing their homes.
To lessen the spread of COVID-19 and help keep people in their homes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a nationwide eviction moratorium (a temporary freeze on evictions for nonpayment of rent) in September 2020. In the months that followed, Congress passed two additional bills – the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021” and the “American Rescue Plan Act of 2021” – that made a total of $46.55 billion in emergency rental assistance (ERA) available to states and localities for distribution to renters and landlords across the country.
The public health emergency and resulting historic aid to renters have fundamentally shifted the housing landscape in the United States. In addition to the federal moratorium and availability of emergency rental assistance, state and local jurisdictions across the country have recognized the crucial role tenant protections play in preventing evictions and ensuring housing stability for the lowest-income households. In 2021 alone, states and localities implemented over 130 new regulations to protect tenants from eviction and keep them stably housed.