Immigrant Communities Face Financial, Health, and Social Hardships Due to Rental Unaffordability

Housing Policy Debate published a report, “Rental Affordability, Coping Strategies, and Impacts in Diverse Immigrant Communities,” examining how rental affordability pressures impact financial, health, and social outcomes in diverse immigrant communities. Using interviews with 132 individuals in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood, the researchers found that residents are prioritizing rental payments by cutting spending on other essential needs. Rising housing costs are also limiting housing choice among residents who want to remain near their networks but face affordability challenges and fear displacement.

Researchers conducted 12 focus groups with low-income residents in City Heights in 2018. The groups were facilitated in seven languages and included 112 adults and 20 youths who were predominantly immigrants and children of immigrants. Each focus group concentrated on four general themes: financial tradeoffs, institutional support, resident goals for and expectations about the future, and visions and ideas of residents about creating a better future.

The researchers found that residents are making sacrifices to afford housing and prioritizing rent over all other expenses. Many respondents explained that they had reduced spending on other essentials, including food, utilities, medical appointments, and transportation costs. Respondents had picked up additional hours at work to pay rent and described the physical toll of working additional hours to afford rent. Households had also doubled up to reduce housing costs, leading to overcrowding. Together, such sacrifices could have far-reaching impacts on households’ health and well-being.

Residents described their dependency on social support networks specific to City Heights for navigating everyday life. Many residents are refugees or speak primary languages other than English, and the existence of such networks motivated many to attempt to stay in City Heights. In most of the focus groups, residents also identified local nonprofits and community organizations as important neighborhood resources. These institutions helped provide translation support, financial donations, and food, while also providing culturally relevant services across a diverse community. Such institutions were found to tie residents to the neighborhood because few communities outside of City Heights offered the same support networks or culturally relevant resources.

Though many residents were deeply connected to their community, they feared that remaining in the neighborhood would be difficult due to rising rent costs, gentrification, and neighborhood change. Residents noted that their desire to stay in City Heights constrained their choices about moving, giving landlords leverage to increase rents and avoid basic maintenance without offering them any recourse. Residents also detailed the ways in which rising housing costs had changed community and family dynamics. Respondents across all focus groups explained that people in their broader networks were exhausted because most were struggling with the same issues afflicting respondents. They also reported that the combined pressures of having to work more hours and cut down on unnecessary transportation costs left them unable to participate in community events. Youth participants emphasized changes in familial dynamics, with many explaining that they had lost opportunities to spend time with parents due to long work hours and that they felt pressure to avoid asking parents for resources in order not to increase financial strain.

The report points to the need to expand housing choice vouchers to increase housing affordability and stability. Efforts to expand vouchers should include culturally and linguistically relevant services to ensure diverse communities can access assistance. The report also confirms the need for renter rights and tenant protections that prevent exploitation and displacement by landlords.

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