The COVID-19 pandemic is a historical accelerant. It has compressed 10 years of online-shopping growth into a few months, bankrupted chains that were in steady decline, hastened Democratic gains in the Sun Belt, sped up an urban exodus from America’s most expensive cities, and persuaded my grandmother to finally use Instacart. All of this was bound to happen eventually. The coronavirus just mashed its big fat thumb on the fast-forward button.
And now a housing problem years in the making is dangerously close to spiraling out of control.
Before the pandemic, half of U.S renters spent 30 percent of their income on housing. The poorest quintile of Americans spent more than half their income on rent, on average. Even in a healthy economy, housing costs were eating workers’ wages.
Then the plague hit, and low-income workers were hit hardest. With the face-to-face economy shut down, the retail and leisure industries shed tens of millions of jobs in a matter of weeks. An analysis by the NYU Furman Center found that in New York City, the households most likely to face an “economic disruption”—including losing a job, or having hours cut back—spent the highest share of their income on housing.
Without intervention, the COVID-19-induced economic crisis is in danger of becoming a housing crisis. Data on rent payments are hard to come by, but one survey has found that a third of Americans say they failed to make a full housing payment in June. By September, more than 20 million renters will be at risk of eviction, especially as eviction moratoriums come to an end. Without income, renters can't pay rent and utilities. Without monthly payments, landlords and other companies can’t make mortgages and bond payments.
Perhaps this is all starting to sound like a redux of the mid-2000s housing crisis. It’s not. The Great Recession was driven in large part by declining standards in mortgage underwriting. When the bubble burst, foreclosures soared, homes stood empty, housing prices fell, homeownership rates fell, and more people rented in dense cities.
The 2020 housing market is the opposite, in almost every way. Demand for downtown apartments is deteriorating. Sales of newly built homes rose faster in June than any month since 2005. Watchdogs perceive no trouble in underwriting. Rather than too many houses, the hot market is defined by a historic undersupply of single-family and multifamily houses, thanks to a decade of insufficient building and, now, the shutdown of new construction in much of the country.
Still, one thing unites the crises of 2020 and 2008: the urgent need for intervention by the U.S government. The current housing crisis could get messy quickly, but fixing it shouldn’t be complicated. It will just take something that, unlike public-health competence, the federal government has in nearly infinite supply: money.
In March, Congress passed the CARES Act, which distributed a onetime stimulus check to tens of millions of households, expanded unemployment benefits by $600 a week (and made them available to self-employed and gig workers), and authorized the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars to companies to keep them from laying off their workers. Meanwhile, dozens of cities and states passed moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures. Hurried and patchy as these programs might seem, they’ve largely worked to keep people in their homes. They need to be extended imminently, or a terrible economy will get far worse.
“There are two things we need to do right now,” says Bill McBride, an economic writer at the blog Calculated Risk. “First, we need to keep doing CARES Acts until this is over. If we run the debt up $10 trillion, it will be money saved. Second, we’ve got to get a grip on the pandemic, and that probably means shutting every indoor business down for a few months again and moving as much outdoors as we can.”
Pandemics are complicated, but pandemic economics is simple. Get families cash, or people will go hungry and lose their home. Get companies cash, or firms will fire their workers and disappear from their communities. Stop the pandemic, or else suffering and devastation will continue no matter how much cash we spend. The United States has been terrible at following the third rule. But in the next few weeks, Congress has a chance to do what it does best—appropriate money. If it doesn’t, we will all accelerate into a world nobody wants to live in.