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Our Unequal Pandemic: Housing

Posted on February 24, 2021

Our Unequal Pandemic: Housing

Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

In Washington, DC, a city with one of the largest homeless populations in the nation, COVID-19 has hit our city hard.

For those experiencing homelessness, a crisis in itself, this new crisis added an even greater layer of hardship. Unemployment rates spiked, food insecurity rates drastically increased, warming centers closed, meal programs shut down, and housing placements were suspended, prolonging homelessness for thousands, at the worst time, in the midst of a global pandemic.

And it's impossible to ignore that this population - the hardest hit by the pandemic, the ones who are six times more likely to die of COVID-19 and who make up 86.4% of the homeless population - are Black residents of DC.

Discrimination and Housing

In a city full of housing and employment opportunities, why is homelessness so prevalent for Black residents and why has that same population been so hard hit by the pandemic?

Addressing the concentrated impact of COVID-19 on this community cannot be done without addressing the root causes, one of which is racism in housing.

Housing discrimination is deeply rooted in our country - from Black citizens being barred from affordable housing, enduring implicit biases in the housing market, and the federal government denying returning citizens access to public housing - the system has continually discouraged Black Americans from homeownership. And this continuing depressed homeownership has created a massive wealth gap between white households and Black households in DC.

For those long-time DC residents who do own homes, gentrification has pushed many of them out of the city. While the renaissance of our city has been a blessing for most, it has hurt many as well. And in the case of longtime renters, there are few protections for them from skyrocketing rents.

And rent is skyrocketing: it is estimated that in DC, a minimum wage worker would have to work 77 hours a week to afford an average one-bedroom apartment.

Historical Effects of Discrimination

DC's history of housing has contributed significantly to Black residents being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. With a lack of affordable housing, Black families are more likely to live in cramped households with little room for social distancing. Multi-generational households and multi-dwelling living spaces, like apartments, are also more common in Black households than white households. To add onto already cramped quarters, Black Americans are also more likely to hold essential in-person jobs, thus bringing an added risk for exposure and infection.

At Thrive DC, we've always seen the effects that gentrification and the lack of affordable housing have had on DC residents. Thrive DC was founded in 1979 in response to the first wave of homelessness in DC and has evolved over time as the growth in homelessness and the lack of resources for those without homes increased.

When COVID-19 hit, we knew our response had to equal the need that we were seeing in the community. That's why we greatly expanded our food programs, connecting with partners to serve over 2,000 households in Ward 1 and across the city with emergency groceries each week.

Clay Leconey via Unsplash

The Solution is Equity

The answer is what it's always been: housing. We need more housing to meet the needs of future residents, and 12,000 new affordable homes just for the current residents.

But specifically, we need housing that puts equity at the center of our city's response to the pandemic. What communities have been hardest hit? How do we prioritize recovery? DC's own ReOpen DC Working Group recognized that "equal access to high quality food, housing, education, and jobs" have long evaded our urban and low-income communities.

As we rebuild from the pandemic, how will we enshrine equity in our response?

Thrive DC is working with our coalition partners to fight for housing resources for our city's most vulnerable residents: people without homes, especially those who have been homeless the longest; people exiting incarceration, and especially for women in both of these intersecting populations, who often face greater burdens and challenges than their counterparts.

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