What is the state of housing inequality in the United States?
Housing inequality is a form of economic discrimination in which not all people are able to live in places where they can be free from harm, threat, or barriers that keep them from thriving. In addition to the rising costs of living, the impacts of COVID-19 created an increase in housing insecurity that is affecting millions of people. According to a national survey taken in August 2021, 3.7 million people responded that they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to face eviction in the next two months, while 7.7 million people were behind on their rent. Even before the pandemic, housing insecurity was a large-scale issue impacting many across the nation.
A 2019 survey found that 37.1 million households (renters and owners) were classified as “cost burdened” (spending more than 30% of their income on housing) of these, 17.6 million households were severely cost burdened (spending more than 50% of their income on housing). People who spend 30% or more of their income on housing have little left over each month to spend on other necessities such as food, clothing, utilities, and health care.
What does housing insecurity look like? How is it experienced?
Many people may believe that housing inequality does not affect them because they think it only means homelessness. Housing insecurity is a term with many meanings:
- an inability to find and keep affordable and safe housing
- living under the continual threat of eviction
- living in temporary housing (like hotels, shelters, couch surfing, etc.)
- the inability to comfortably afford rent or utilities
- the charging of basic housing needs, rent or bills on credit
- the inability to leave a place one feels unsafe in due to lack of options
- or the total loss of a home or dwelling
Although anyone can face housing insecurity, it is more often experienced by non-white working class people, victims of domestic violence, disabled people, former foster youth, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, single parents, migrants, individuals with low credit scores, formerly incarcerated people, people with chronic health conditions, and those who have been historically victimized by systems of discrimination. This is because the systems and institutions in our society treat people differently based on these things.
Many people are one unexpected bill or emergency away from becoming housing insecure. For example, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have been caught off guard and have experienced unexpected housing dilemmas. As noted in Why Housing Matters for Sexual Assault Survivors, job loss created situations where some survivors felt they had to engage in survival sex to meet their basic needs or continue living with the person who has abused them. Others may not directly experience sexual violence but may experience overcrowding, may be forced to move frequently, or be victims of the increasing trends of gentrification. Additionally, when many people lost their jobs or were unable to work due to COVID-19, some landlords targeted vulnerable women soliciting sex in exchange for rent.
What is gentrification?
Gentrification is a social process of classism in which developers take a new interest in poor or working class neighborhoods and seek to attract wealthy college-educated people. This pushes out old residents, typically people of color, due to rising rents. These neighborhoods are often urban and become revamped or renovated with new businesses, remodeled architecture, or luxury housing which becomes inaccessible to the community who lived there before. Working class history is often erased during this process and people lose access to the spaces and buildings they lived, worked, raised families and socialized in before. Longstanding relationships with community members are also dissolved as people must move elsewhere- losing proximity with their roots and solidarity networks. Local cultures disappear and create rising rates of homelessness, displacement, and conflict.
This process is highly racialized, and often operates with the notion that historically Black, Latino or Migrant neighborhoods are inherently ‘dangerous’ and need redevelopment. However, instead of using funds to support the existing social networks, provide aid, or develop resources to those communities as a primary intervention strategy, money is instead prioritized to make the spaces more attractive to potential new buyers and businesses. The cost of living then goes up, as new price standards are set. There is often a larger focus on what is regarded as the positive outcomes of this process, with words like “revitalization” or “beautification” used to legitimize it as a progressive initiative. The destructive impacts it has on the pre-existing community, however, are publicly overshadowed or understated.
How is housing insecurity gendered?
In addition to racism, those who have been simultaneously oppressed by patriarchy and the gender binary have experienced the most insecurity in their housing. For these populations, inequality occurs on many levels: from loan discrimination by banks, harassment from landlords, and lower pay due to the wage gap, to higher rates of financial dependency due to domestic violence, unaffordable rent in safe neighborhoods, and a lack of support in safety nets. For example, displacement from family homes due to sexual violence disproportionately affects women and former foster youth, while unacceptance from parents disproportionately LGBTQ+ folks. Both of these factors may push young adults into situations where they are unable to transition into stable housing situation.
Due to the gender wage gap, women must work more to afford housing, all while met with less renting opportunities and discrimination in lending. This form of economic inequality is not only gendered but is racialized as well. According to the National Women’s Law Center, “Women in the United States working full-time are typically paid 82 cents for every dollar men are paid. That gap increases for Black women (63 cents), Latinas (55 cents), Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women (63 cents), Native American women (60 cents), and some subgroups of Asian women.7 In addition, women are disproportionately represented in the low-paid workforce, making up 64 percent of the workforce in the 40 lowest paying jobs (typically paying less than $12 per hour) before the COVID-19 pandemic, with starker disproportionate representation from women of color.” The Williams Institute concluded in a recent study that men who identify as gay and bisexual make 10-32% less than heterosexual men with the same credentials, while another study found that transgender women lost an average of 33% their previous wages after transitioning. This all translates to less resources available to secure housing contracts, pay rent and utilities, and less ability for one to choose where they want to live or who they want to rent from. This also leads to lower credit scores and higher interest rates.
Individuals who identify as women or on the LGBTQ+ spectrum also face more violence when experiencing homelessness. 17% of people who identify as transgender were sexually assaulted while staying in a homeless shelter.
These realities are often what keeps victims in unsafe environments, exploitative jobs, domestically violent home situations, or keep people on the streets living without sufficient shelter. Single parents often fear losing their children due to an inability to secure adequate housing, not to mention the physical, mental, and emotional toll this form of stress can have on a person.
How is housing inequality racialized?
Those who have been simultaneously oppressed by racism, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy culture have experienced the most injustice and insecurity in their housing. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, “Black and Hispanic households are almost twice as likely as White households to be cost burdened” (spending 30% or more on housing costs)
Not only does housing inequality disproportionately affect Black people, its history is born from discrimination systems that sought to prevent their equality and upward mobility. For example, the single greatest factor contributing to wealth inequality in the United States (a 27% gap in wealth between white and African American households between 1984 and 2009) was a governmentally sanctioned practice known as “redlining” in which white families were favored as home buyers while Black families were denied equity building opportunities and left to live in rental properties. And even before that, the single greatest contributor to the accumulation of American wealth as a nation was due to centuries of slavery and human chattel. Just knowing this one fact alone might change the way we think and understand financial disparities in the country and stop our national proclivity to not see them as racially intrenched.
Many people think the United States is in a post-segregation moment, however, its impacts are still creating very real consequences today, and especially during times of crisis, disaster, or national hardship. For example, housing inequality has been further worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. As shown by research from the National Association of Realtors, “The homeownership rate gap between White and Black households grew even further in 2020. According to our analysis, the U.S. homeownership rate experienced the largest annual increase on record, though Black homeownership remained lower than a decade ago… In the meantime, during the pandemic, rising home prices and low housing supply have disproportionately impacted Black households more than any other race/ethnic group. White households are 40% more likely to be able to afford to buy a home compared to Black households. ” The same body of research also indicates mortgage discrimination, with Black applicants being twice as likely to be denied a mortgage than white applicants.
Homelessness is a direct result of this same historical and structural oppression. According to research from our study on the links between sexual violence and housing, “Black individuals, other people of color, and Indigenous individuals overrepresented in the homeless population.”
What is the connection between adequate housing and healing from sexual trauma?
According to research on the links between sexual violence and housing, 11% of women who experienced sexual assault reported it happened at their home, and 8% percent of women who experienced intimate partner violence (7% percent of women who experienced rape) needed housing services as a result.
Living in housing insecurity or the threat of unstable housing is extremely stressful and is counter to the safe, secure environments that survivors need to heal. This is true not just for the material stress but the emotional stress. When survivors are bogged down trying to figure out their housing situations, they have less time and energy to spend on healing. Financial desperation may push individuals into further traumatizing encounters, exploitative jobs, or place them at further risk for sexual harm. As Jennifer Benner notes, “Many survivors of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment have unique and complex housing needs. Experiencing sexual violence can jeopardize a person’s housing, and experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity can increase the risk someone will experience violence. Additionally, “home” may not be a safe place for some survivors, especially if the person who abused them is a household member, landlord, neighbor, or someone who knows where they live. Other survivors may need to find new housing to heal from the violence in their lives.” Many survivors may feel more comfortable living alone, but cannot afford to. On the contrary, others might feel safer living nearby loved ones, but are unable to afford housing in that area. Survivors often feel worried that abusers might track them down or find them, however, moving to an entirely different place is a very costly endeavor not everyone can afford. Additionally, in many places, there are limited resources for relocation assistance to help victims of sexual violence move to new housing outside of victims compensation. Victims who are parents may also worry about uprooting their children or stress about starting a whole new safety net of people in a new place where they have few resources.
Why does domestic violence thrive in systems of housing inequality?
Abusers often exploit the knowledge that their victims have nowhere else to go, which further empowers their sense of control over those they are harming. Inversely, when victims have nowhere else to go, they are less likely to leave and especially so if they have children. Domestic abuse is often all-encompassing, meaning it incorporates many forms of abuse simultaneously. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), “The majority of survivors experience financial abuse, meaning that they have not had access to the family finances, have been prohibited from working, or have had their credit scores destroyed by the abusive partner. Victims may also face discrimination in accessing or maintaining housing based on the violent or criminal actions of perpetrators. Additionally, victims are limited in the locations and types of housing they can access because of their unique safety and confidentiality needs, and many housing or homelessness assistance programs have barriers that inadvertently exclude victims of violence.” As such, victims are often pushed to homelessness to try to escape the harm, but then face further trauma. In a study that sampled 110 domestic violence survivors, 38% reported homelessness and similar percentages reported cost burden related housing problems like being late paying rent, skipping meals, and being threatened with eviction. Victims are also highly inclined to overlook partnering with someone who is abusive or that otherwise wouldn’t want to out of desperation for shelter or support.
How does housing insecurity create a vicious cycle for poverty and trauma?
Issues of housing insecurity have a circular impact, meaning that they continue to perpetuate harm which, as it increases in impact, becomes hard to be resilient against. As stated by The Domestic Violence and Housing Technical Assistance Consortium, “sexual assault, abuse, and harassment can be risk factors for homelessness, and homelessness is a risk factor for experiencing rape or sexual assault.” At the same time, those who experience trauma (especially adverse childhood experiences) are more likely to experience housing insecurity in their life, and when experiencing housing insecurity, they are more likely to encounter more trauma. This is not only due to the stress of the experience (or the concept that being stressed is stressful and causes more stress), but also in more tangible ways. When one is unable to pay their bills and basic needs, their credit score decreases. This in turn makes life more expensive, as people unable to pay their bills in the past are punished with higher deposits, higher interest rates, and bigger monthly payments. Evictions can become a part of a person’s permanent rental history, making it much harder for them to rent again, further limiting their options to secure safe, stable housing.
What’s the connection between trauma and housing inequality?
As defined in our blog series “A Guide to Exploring Trauma”, trauma isn’t one specific thing and although difficult to define because of its diversity, in essence trauma is the opposite of safety. Trauma can occur even in the absence of something violent, during high episodes of stress. That is because chronically feeling unsafe for long periods of time is a form of trauma. For example, a person walking down the street in an environment in which they feel impending threats from a landlord may experience trauma even if nothing happens, because worrying about whether or not something may happen each day is stressful. In line with research from the US Department of Health and Human Services “Evictions may be especially traumatizing to residents due to short relocation notices. Suicide rates linked to stress doubled between 2005 and 2010, when the United States experienced historically high rates of foreclosures, including foreclosures on rental properties”
Linking deeper, those who experience trauma in other facets of their life are more likely to experience housing insecurity. According to research on the links between sexual violence and housing, almost 40% of homeless female and 3.3% of homeless male veterans experienced military sexual trauma, 20% of those who are homeless reported being physically or sexually assaulted while homeless and 25% of adults who are homeless experienced child sexual abuse (36% for women vs. 14% for men). Almost 42% of homeless youth (ages 14-24) have experienced child sexual abuse prior to running away.
Housing insecurity is not only an affect of trauma, it exposes people to higher instances of trauma, with 23 % of homeless young adults (ages 18-26) experiencing involvement with the sex trade and 38% of LGBTQ homeless youth (ages 13-25) forced to have sex as compared to 15% of non-LGBTQ youth. In a study of 100 low-income women living in public housing or participating in the Section 8 voucher program, 16% had experienced sexual harassment or other problematic sexual behavior from a landlord.
What is the relationship between racial violence and space keeping under White Supremacy culture?
White supremacist ideologies operate under the idea of ‘space keeping’ neighborhoods and segregation whereby non-white people are regarded as ‘not belonging’ in predominantly white spaces. Dr. Kenneth Mark's "Doll Test" evidenced the psychological impacts of segregation on African-American children, who in the test viewed white dolls as more valuable. While examples of this are evidenced in our history (with entire eras of ‘White Only’ establishments being legally sanctioned) it is in no way a reality of the past. Every day, social media is filled with documentation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), migrant, and non-white people being harassed, followed, or threatened because they are existing in spaces that encroach upon white supremacy ideologies of exclusionism and space keeping. Police are regularly called on non-white people simple for being out in public, many of whom have been murdered by law enforcement as a result.
The notion that ‘certain people belong in certain places’ drives the harmful cycles that create a ripple effect that keeps the continuation of racism, police brutality, the murder of people of color, homelessness, sexual and gendered violence in place.
Sexual Violence & Housing Resource Collection by National Sexual Violence Resource Center