Moving from the Inequitable Housing System We Have to the Housing System We Need
America’s housing system was never just built to create housing. It was designed to maintain racially and economically segregated neighborhoods and it rests on a long legacy of inequity, specifically anti-Black racism. In this sense, our housing system isn’t really broken. Its weakness in this moment—in the pandemic—just shows that it’s working as designed. COVID-19 is holding up the mirror, and we have an unprecedented opportunity to begin the uncomfortable process of examining, owning, dismantling, and rebuilding the inequitable system that got us here.
Through decades of housing policies and practices that have literally divided us—such as redlining and the Federal Housing Administration’s 1938 Underwriting Manual, which allowed loan denial based on race—we’ve intentionally created entire communities that are more vulnerable to crisis than others. Black Americans are still the least likely group to own homes and build generational wealth, and therefore have fewer economic protections (the homeownership gap is actually wider today than it was in the 1960s when housing discrimination was overtly legal). People of color are still overrepresented in our homeless populations and our incarcerated populations, and those most impacted by the lack of affordable housing, jobs, and quality healthcare.
When you look at where and who this pandemic is hitting hardest, it’s clear that race, place, job type, and income matter. It’s hard not to see housing—and its long threadline through history—as inextricably linked to this moment.
Housing policy helped get us here, and now housing may be another collateral consequence of the pandemic and its economic fallout. While December’s COVID relief bill provides some relief for renters and short-term protection from eviction, it does little to address the long-standing inequalities that got us here. It’s a temporary bandage. We need to leverage these short-term legislative wins as a jumping-off point to transform our housing system as a whole.
This moment now demands ...