Systematic Review Highlights Renters’ COVID-19 Experiences and Responses

The Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) released a systematic review of COVID-19 research and data on renter experiences. “Renters’ Responses to Financial Stress During the Pandemic” outlines the extent of renter financial hardship, how renters have responded to income loss, and effects of financial hardship. The report also highlights gaps in current research to inform future data-collection efforts. These gaps include data on renter experiences that are disaggregated by race, property type, and geography. To mitigate renters’ financial hardship, the authors recommend continued cash assistance, decreased barriers for rental assistance, and investments in better data on renters’ financial stability and eviction risk.

This report systematically reviews data sources and research that have documented renter experiences during COVID-19, including data from 14 COVID-19 renter surveys. These surveys vary widely and include large nationwide samples, such as the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, and smaller, localized samples, such as a survey conducted by the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition. Other surveys included the Federal Reserve Bank’s COVID-19 Survey of Consumers, a monthly survey from ApartmentList, a survey in Los Angeles County by Housing Initiative at Penn, and Zumper’s 2020 Annual Renter Survey. The paper highlights high-level findings across this research, as well as discrepancies between different data sources and data limitations.

The report finds that approximately half of all renters have lost income during COVID-19, though estimates across different data sources vary slightly. Losses have been greatest among renters of color, low-income renters, and young renters. Analysis from JCHS, for example, found that 51% of white renters lost income between March and December 2020, compared to 59% of Black renters and 64% of Latino renters. Lower-income renters were more likely to lose employment income between March and December: 60% of renters making less than $25,000 annually, 61% of renters making between $25,000 and $49,999, and 42% of renters with incomes greater than $100,000 were affected. The amount of lost income has varied widely, with one survey estimating that among renters that who lost income, 39% had lost at least half of their income.

Renters have responded to lost income in a variety of ways, including using money from savings, cutting back on spending, and asking family or friends for help. The percent of renters who used money from their savings account at some point during the pandemic is significant, though estimates vary, ranging from 33% to 42%. Research also indicates that 10% to 15% of renters have dipped into their retirement accounts to pay rent. Several estimates highlight that half of all renters behind on rent borrowed money from family or friends.

Financial hardship imposed by COVID-19 has led many renters to accumulate significant arrears and face potential eviction. Though data are limited on the amount that renters owe, several estimates indicate many renters owe at least a few thousand dollars. Two small surveys indicate renters, on average, owe between $1,800 and $2,000. Rental arrears will vary significantly, however, based on geography. Renters who applied for rental assistance in Los Angeles County owed an average of more than $5,800 in rental arrears. Data on evictions are also limited, but research shows a significant percent of households could face eviction in coming months, with estimates ranging from 16% to 40% of renters.

The authors identify areas where more data are needed to bolster our understanding of COVID-19’s impact on renters, including the extent of borrowing to pay bills, reductions in renter’s savings, and the use of credit cards to pay rent. Future research should also focus on gaining a better understanding of the magnitude of financial impacts, demographics of affected households, and differential impacts across geography.

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