COVID-19 provides a stark reminder that affordable housing is a public health issue as well as a moral imperative. When households cannot afford their rent, they cannot afford to shelter in place or self-isolate, which puts them and everyone else at greater risk.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s (NLIHC) recently published report, “Out of Reach 2020,” highlights the severity of this problem: in no state, metropolitan area, or county can a full-time minimum-wage worker afford a modest two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent. In 95% of counties in the US, a full-time minimum-wage worker cannot afford a one-bedroom rental home at fair market rent.

In Tennessee, the data reveals a full-time worker needs to earn $17.09 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment (https://reports.nlihc.org/oor).

Housing assistance remains woefully inadequate and has not kept pace with the growing need: only one in four renters who needs housing assistance receives it. Currently there is a national shortage of seven million affordable and available homes for renters with extremely low incomes. For every 100 renters with extremely low incomes, there are only 36 affordable and available homes. Approximately 71% of extremely low-income renters are severely housing cost-burdened1, spending more than half of their incomes on housing. The pandemic, which has caused sudden and unprecedented increases in unemployment, has increased the need for housing assistance even further.

Housing affordability is not just a problem for minimum-wage workers. The average renter’s hourly wage is $18.22, $5.74 less than the national two-bedroom Housing Wage — what a full-time worker needs to earn to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. The average renter’s wage is $1.34 below the national one-bedroom Housing Wage. The high cost of housing is a racial justice issue as well. Due to historical and ongoing racial discrimination, people of color are more likely than white people to be renters, and higher proportions of Black and Latino households are housing cost-burdened, extremely low-income renters.

An overwhelming majority of Americans want the government to invest in housing. In a recent poll commissioned by NLIHC’s Opportunity Starts at Home campaign, 87% of adults say that elected leaders should take major action to ensure everyone has stable, affordable housing during the pandemic, and 93% favor providing rental assistance for people struggling as a result of the crisis.

The lack of housing affordable to for low-wage workers and other extremely low-income renters is solvable — during and after COVID-19. First, to prevent a wave of evictions in the coming months, Congress must implement a national eviction moratorium for the duration of the pandemic and provide at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance to keep low-income renters stably housed. Then, Congress must make sustained and substantial investments in long term solutions through the National Housing Trust Fund, expanded Housing Choice Vouchers and repairs to our nation’s public housing stock. The lack of affordable homes for the lowest-income people is one of our country’s most urgent challenges; it’s also among the most easily solved. We lack only the political will to fund the solutions at the scale necessary. It’s time for Congress to act.

Patricia M. Smith is Executive Director of the Tennessee Affordable Housing Coalition.

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