By Andrew Guthrie, PhD (Assistant Professor, City and Regional Planning The University of Memphis), Courtnee Melton-Fant, PhD (Assisant Professor, Division of Health Systems Management The University of Memphis), and Katherine Lambert-Pennington, PhD (Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology The University of Memphis).
From the 2021 edition of the Hooks Institute Policy Papers “Race in the Time of COVID-19.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing racial inequalities in employment, financial security, and health access, and the economic repercussions have been disproportionately shouldered by women (Jin et al. 2021). Nationally and locally, Black, Latinx, and Asian people have higher rates of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality compared to White people (Lopez, Hart, & Katz, 2021). Structural racism – the intersecting and reinforcing policies, systems, and institutions that create advantages and disadvantages based on race (Bailey & Moon, 2020) – have resulted in racial disparities. Nowhere is this more evident than in the housing sector. The pandemic amplified housing insecurity, as millions of people lost income, jobs and dealt with COVID related health challenges and deaths.
Housing insecurity, lack of access to safe, affordable, and stable housing, disproportionally impacts communities of color. Black and Latino families have lower rates of homeownership, live in more segregated neighborhoods, pay more for housing, and have been at greater risk of foreclosure than White homeowners. Further, Black and Latinx households are more likely to be renters than White households; they also face evictions at a much higher rate (Greenberg et al., 2016). Given income and job loss, Benfer et al. (2020) estimate that 30-40 million renters are at risk of eviction. To help mitigate this risk and stem the likelihood of COVID transmission (Nande et al., 2021; Jowers et al., 2021), the federal government imposed a national moratorium on evictions recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and provided $25 billion dollars to states and local governments to fund emergency rental assistance.
Research has shown that the national mortarium on eviction hearings and decisions was effective in slowing evictions and allowed households to use financial resources to meet immediate needs (An et al., 2021). However, as the economy slowly recovers, and enhanced federal unemployment benefits end, the long-term impact of the pandemic on housing security is likely to be devastating. While data is not fully available, two key indicators of housing affordability- income and the proportion of income to rent cost, often referred to as cost-burden- serve as important determinants of a household’s risk for eviction. Additionally, racial disparities in housing security and employment in essential worker roles, and vulnerability to COVID-related job loss are crucial to understanding what policy steps would be most effective to address the impending housing crisis in Memphis. Manifestations of structural racism that are particularly relevant for Memphis include racial residential segregation, the proliferation of housing insecurity in Black neighborhoods, and the overrepresentation of Black and Latinx workers in the service industry.
Early Indications of Pandemic Effects
With one of the highest rates in the nation, evictions in Memphis have been an acute problem for years. Despite a state eviction moratorium in the spring and summer of 2020 and the CDC order, which was extended until October 3, 2021, eviction filings in Memphis have continued. Over eighteen thousand evictions have been
filed since the start of the pandemic and are continuing at a rate of between 200 and 300 per week (Princeton University, 2021).
Systematic analysis of the effects of COVID-19 on the housing sector is complicated by the ongoing, dynamic nature of the pandemic and the 1- to 2-year time lag in availability of most sources of social data at the fine geographic scales needed to fully understand the social and spatial dynamics at play in Memphis. In particular,
the lack of unemployment data at less than county scale obscures a crucial link in the chain of events most likely to lead to an eviction as a result of COVID: pandemic-related job loss leading to an inability to make rent. In the interest of providing as much timely information to policymakers and the public as possible, proxy measures—such as residential locations of workers in sectors especially likely to experience job loss—can approximate unavailable data.
The table below shows specific measures of COVID’s implications for housing in Memphis, as well as definitions of each measure and data sources. These measures consider vulnerability to eviction directly via pre-pandemic housing unaffordability and susceptibility to job loss as well as in a context of structural inequality and historic marginalization.
% of households paying >30% of monthly income in rent
American Community Survey (2015-2019)
% of population who self-ID as “Black or African American”.
American Community Survey (2015-2019)
Number of workers in the Retail Trade, Accommodation and Food Service and Arts, Entertainment and Recreation sectors
Longitudinal Employer and Household Dynamics (LEHD) Database (2018)
Number of legal evictions recorded by the county. Expressed both as a count and as the ratio of evictions to rental households
Shelby County Housing Court (via Innovate Memphis); American Community Survey
Although this data is preliminary, strong spatial relationships exist in Memphis between key measures of social marginalization and economic vulnerability and the prevalence of evictions in 2020. The following four maps show these measures as densities. Density maps allow us to explore where in the city the greatest numbers of people experience eviction, housing insecurity and other social factors which increase vulnerability to both. For each map, we select a social condition to explore—i.e. paying more than 30% of one’s household income in rent, being a service worker before the pandemic or being evicted—count the number of times that condition occurs within a quarter-mile grid, and use a heat-map algorithm to smooth the result into continuous gradients based on surrounding squares’ values. All five maps use a quintile scale, with the darkest gray squares showing areas in the 80th percentile or above, next darkest the 60th-80th percentile, etc. This mapping approach allows us to see patterns of social disparities from one neighborhood to another while also focusing on neighborhoods with relatively the most intense housing injustices.
The second map (above) shows concentrations of Black residents. Memphis is a racially segregated city, as can be seen by how tightly concentrated the Black population is, compared even with the rent-burdened population. (i.e., Memphis is still a highly spatially segregated city, with the vulnerabilities of rent burden and service-industry employment compounded by historic disinvestment and structural racism). Note, however, that concentrations of Black residents do follow the most intense concentrations of rent burdened households quite closely.
The third map (below) shows concentrations of where workers in the retail, sales, hospitality, food service and entertainment industries lived before the pandemic. County-level data indicate workers in these sectors were disproportionately likely to have suffered job loss. Note again the general similarity with the preceding maps, with the degree of concentration falling between Black residents and rent-burdened households. In particular, the spatial relationship between workers likely to have lost jobs and households already facing unaffordable rents beforehand shows the susceptibility of their neighborhoods to an economic and health shock like COVID.
The final two maps (page 8) show concentrations of evictions, both in absolute terms (for consistency with the preceding maps) and weighted by the number of renter households in each census block group (for consistency with standard measures in the housing field). Eviction densities do not show all the housing precarity or injustice in a neighborhood, but they do represent a rapidly-available, geographically precise measure of extreme housing injustice due to legal filing requirements. Though the scale of the (upper) absolute map is somewhat dominated by a single, intense cluster of evictions to the southwest, the overall spatial pattern is both stark and by this point familiar, tracking those of Black residents and service workers especially closely. The most intense areas of the (lower) weighted eviction density map show a largely similar shape to those of the absolute map, but do not stand out as strongly from their surroundings, likely due to smaller numbers of renter households in wealthier and/or suburban areas. It is important to note, however, that this final map shows evictions are a problem county-wide and may only appear not to be in outlying areas due to lower densities of renters.
We can see from these maps that the highest rates of evictions in Shelby County have a strong spatial relationship to long-standing patterns of structural inequality—particularly in the case of the unweighted map. However, the weighted map shows us that evictions are a problem throughout Shelby County in the context of an individual renter household’s likelihood of being evicted, though it is crucial to note that patterns of structural inequality still appear in the weighted map, even accounting for inter-neighborhood differences in numbers of renters. In other words, though a robust policy response is required throughout the county, special focus must be placed on neighborhoods affected by structural racial and economic inequality. Finally, the close spatial correspondence between eviction rates and pre-COVID rent burden shows that evictions are both an acute problem and a chronic one: the pandemic did not create a crisis where there was none before; in large part it seems to have pushed households who were already struggling over the edge. Understanding this does not change the need for rapid, emergency assistance to Memphians facing eviction, but it does also call for a longer-term policy response to ongoing issues of housing unaffordability and insecure tenure.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the existing housing crisis in Memphis, but the full effect of housing insecurity on eviction rates and neighborhood stability have yet to be fully revealed. The ongoing housing crisis in Memphis and the COVID-19 pandemic require multifaceted policy solutions that not only respond to immediate needs but also address the larger housing affordability issues in the city. While policy interventions are needed at all levels of government, we focus our recommendations on state and local level policies that are most relevant to the Memphis context. As shown in Figure 1, Memphis is already implementing eviction prevention and mitigation policies and working to increase housing stability.
Figure 1. Policy levers for improving housing stability
* Denotes policies and programs that are currently being utilized in Memphis
- Increase outreach and education about the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA)
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA), funded through the CARES Act and administered in Memphis by United Housing, provides eviction settlement funds to households who have suffered a finan- cial loss due to COVID-19 and live on less than 80% of their county’s median income. A total of 1,320 Shelby County residents received rental assistance in June. Though data are only available at the state level, the Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse Survey estimates 84,447 Tennessee households fear being evicted in the next two months. Proportional to population, Shelby County’s share of that total would be 11,593—over ten times the number currently being helped—even ignoring our high rates of pov- erty and structural inequality. Though funding is available to help significantly more households, difficulties in applying and obtaining cooperation from landlords have reduced numbers served.
- Providing additional community outreach and education about the program and direct assistance in applying as well as encouraging landlords to participate as strongly as permitted by law are im- portant steps to ensure Memphians who could be helped are not needlessly evicted.
- In addition, though CARES Act funds are limited to renters making less than 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI), roughly 15% of households earning 81-100% AMI in Shelby County make more than that, but not enough to afford a median rental cost (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2021). These households may face additional risk of eviction due to the “benefit cliff” coming at an income low enough to still render most housing unaffordable. Other options should be explored for providing assistance to households facing eviction who fall outside CARES Act eligibility requirements, as a means of funding unmet needs while, crucially, holding those renter households most in need harmless.
- Provide sustainable infrastructure and funding for the Eviction Settlement Program (ESP)
The ESP is currently being funded with federal CARES Act dollars to provides tenants with legal assistance and mediation when they are behind on their rent. This program relies on volunteer attorneys and mediators and could provide more assistance to tenants if they had more resources. The services provided by the ESP are critical for preventing evictions and preserving affordable housing (Benfer et al, 2020, Sabbeth 2018).
- Enact laws at the state and local level to prevent evictions and lessen the negative downstream effects
- Tenants who are represented by attorneys are less likely to be evicted (Sabbeth, 2018), but Ten- nesseans do not have a right to counsel in eviction cases because eviction proceedings are civil actions, not criminal matters. Right to counsel laws can ensure that tenants have representation during eviction proceedings.
- Having an eviction or eviction filing on one’s record makes it more difficult to find housing because many landlords do not want to rent to them. Eviction record sealing and eviction expungement laws can improve tenants’ access to housing following an eviction or eviction filing (Fleurant, 2020).
- Increase investment in historically underserved communities that were disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and housing instability
Memphis needs an estimated 30,000 affordable housing units (Innovate Memphis, 2020) and is using multiple levers to address this gap including the establishment of the Memphis Affordable Housing Trust Fund (MAHTF) and the Memphis 3.0 Plan to guide investment and land use regulation in the creation of healthy affordable communities. However:
- The MAHTF is underfunded compared to peer cities and funding for 2021 was not included in the budget because of COVID-19 (BLDG Memphis, 2020).
- Memphis has comparatively low capital investment that is segregated by race and poverty (Theo- dos et al, 2021). The Memphis 3.0 plan is the city’s comprehensive approach to equitably develop and invest in the city. Time will tell if the plan will be able to overcome historical and longstanding patterns of disinvestment and policy that have contributed to the current housing crisis.
- Stronger enforcement of existing laws
In addition to affordability issues, many Memphians live in substandard housing conditions that are harmful to their health. Like many other states, Tennessee has laws requiring landlords to maintain their properties and provide habitable conditions for tenants. Yet, these laws are not always enforced, and tenants may not be aware of these laws (Sabbeth, 2018). Enforcing these laws is necessary for increasing the supply of affordable, healthy housing and keeping tenants in their homes.
- Increase vaccination access and uptake in structurally vulnerable communities
Recent research has shown that neighborhoods with higher eviction filing rates have lower vaccination rates indicating that the higher risk of evictions and of contracting and passing COVID-19 are spatially con- centrated. Place-based interventions, tailored to the specific concerns and desires of these communities, are needed.
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