Even before she lost her job this past spring, things were tight for Nikki Cox. She worked as a service representative at an insurance company in North Carolina and had been making $20 an hour. Half of her income went to rent.
"If I did have something left over, it might be about a hundred [dollars], maybe," she says. But even that "would buy my groceries and my necessities."
It left Cox in trouble when her company's business dropped and her hours were cut. She took a temp job elsewhere, but that paid $15 an hour, a substantial hit on her income. The hours also conflicted with her other job, which she left because she figured she would be laid off soon.
Then in May she got COVID and had to stay out of the office for three weeks, unpaid. At one point, Cox says she relied on customer points at convenience stores to get free dinners. Her nephew also helped.
"If he knew that I didn't have anything, he would send me like $10, $15," she says.
But that didn't go very far with the price of food up 8% or more because of inflation.
Cox is among a majority of Black and also Latino households that say they don't have enough savings to cover one month of expenses. That's according to a survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The poll finds a majority of Americans across racial and ethnic groups say affordable housing is a serious problem where they live, and eviction rates are basically back to pre-pandemic levels, with 3% of Black renters and 2% of Latino, Asian and white renters saying they've been evicted in the past year. Many more say they've faced the threat of eviction, with the share among Black renters (13%) nearly double that of white renters.
Cox says her landlord was understanding but eventually set a deadline.
"She said if you can't get me at least $1,600, I'm going to have to go ahead and start the eviction process."
Since then, Cox has had good news. She found a local nonprofit to help with rent and a new job at her old pay. She's grateful she can stay put and not face a market where monthly rents have risen by double-digit percentages during the past year.
Despite pandemic aid, the racial disparity in evictions has persisted
The racial disparity in housing struggles is chronic and longstanding, since Black households have lower income and less wealth than white ones. On one hand, Peter Hepburn of Princeton University's Eviction Lab says, it's good that it's not gotten worse during the pandemic. But he says it's also disappointing it didn't shrink, given the sweeping array of emergency aid and eviction protections.
"A lot has changed in the last two plus years," he says. "And there was, I think, the real possibility that some of those dynamics would have shifted."
Hepburn says one reason they have not is that — as his research has found — state pandemic policies to prevent evictions were wildly uneven and did not create a blanket moratorium.
"Where you lived had a really profound impact on how well you were protected from eviction," he says. "That was true well before the pandemic. And that divide seems to be getting wider."
Some of the tenants' protections were unimaginable before the pandemic, and Hepburn thinks their success will boost a push for more lasting policies. More cities and states have embraced the right to counsel for tenants facing evictions, for example. But he says it has happened largely in places that were already fairly favorable toward tenants, while some states with more landlord friendly laws have resisted.
It's harder than ever to find affordable housing
The United States has a massive shortage of affordable housing: 14% of all households — and nearly a quarter of renters — are considered severely burdened, meaning they pay more than 50% of their income toward housing. The country also chronically underfunds housing subsidies. Only 1 in 4 who qualify for a Section 8 voucher actually get one.
Cox, the tenant in North Carolina who lost her job, says she applied to the program several years ago but never heard back. Now, for those fortunate enough to have such vouchers, skyrocketing rent and home prices are making it even harder to use them.
In Lexington, Ky., Davita Gatewood is a single mother of six and the caretaker of one of them, who's disabled. She was doing fine paying her share of the rent, with Section 8 picking up the rest. Then her landlord said he would not renew the lease.
"He wants to renovate and sell the property, which is happening to a lot of people right now, just landlords wanting to go on and take advantage of the housing market. But the problem is, you know, we have nowhere to go."
After the lease wasn't renewed, her Section 8 payments stopped, leading the landlord to file for eviction. Gatewood has been fighting that while looking for another place for seven months.
It's a terrible time to move. Rental prices have skyrocketed by double-digit percentages in the past couple of years, and the places Gatewood sees are hundreds of dollars more a month than what she's currently paying. Vacancies are also at a historic low, and Gatewood often finds five or six other people looking at the same place.
"By the time the person is done showing it, somebody is already about to sign a lease," she says. "Most properties don't last but a day or two."
Other times she's gotten excited about a listing "and then at the bottom it says in bold, 'No Section 8.' That's extremely discouraging," she says.
President Biden had proposed major funding for affordable housing in his "Build Back Better" plan, but that's gone nowhere. More recently, the administration took steps to encourage communities to build more — and more densely — to help bring down rents.
That's not enough, says Tara Raghuveer, a tenant rights advocate with People's Action.
"At best, a supply side intervention is going to build housing that shows up in our communities in a couple of years," she says. "That doesn't do anything for the millions of tenants who can't afford rent next month."
Wherever there's federal funding for housing, she wants the administration to make it harder to evict people without cause and harder to raise rents beyond inflation to prices more and more people simply can't pay.