America's Ticking Housing Time Bomb
By Sean Culligan
Sixteen months since the world came grinding to a halt amid the deadliest pandemic in a century, vaccines are allowing many — at least in the West — to finally step out of their homes once again. But for millions of people across the planet, the coming months could see them forced from their homes for good. The Biden administration has extended the federal moratorium on rental evictions, previously scheduled to cease on June 30, by a month. Worryingly for many, however, it’s likely to be the final such extension. Today’s Daily Dose lifts the veil on a looming homelessness crisis that’s confronting America and many parts of the world, introduces you to unheralded heroes and explores some out-of-the-box fixes.
without a home
8 Million Families at Risk in America
The end of U.S. eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, despite having been extended for 30 days, places more than 8 million households at risk of foreclosure or eviction, a path that may lead to the worst housing crisis in over a decade. More than 7 million renters, predominantly households of color and other marginalized groups, were behind on rent in the month of May, and for many, their sole protection from eviction is the moratorium. As studies have found, there’s a correlation between neighborhoods experiencing high levels of eviction and low vaccination rates, and experts warn that COVID-19 may surge again as families are forced from their homes.
What About Rent Relief?
What about the $46 billion Congress allocated toward rent relief in the 2020 COVID-19 relief package and the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act? Faced with managing huge sums of money, many states have been slow to distribute relief money. Waiting times for assistance have ranged from weeks to months, while some landlords have been continuing evictions despite the national ban. And though state programs have the option to provide money directly to renters if landlords are refusing to cooperate, most aren’t doing so. A lack of information on the part of tenants and landlords alike is another obstacle, with less than half of landlords and less than a third of tenants aware of rental assistance programs.
The Bigger Problem
The housing crisis coming fast down the tracks is just the latest to highlight America’s deep-rooted and long-lasting problems around homelessness and housing. Homelessness at the beginning of 2020 rose for the fourth consecutive year, with over 580,000 Americans sleeping on the streets or in temporary shelters on any given night. Critics blame federal spending on perpetuating homelessness, with over $12 billion a year spent on shelters and temporary living, instead of much-needed permanent housing, especially in homeless hot spots like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where sky-high real estate prices have left many struggling to secure affordable housing.
Record Housing Prices
Yet as millions face eviction, housing prices are skyrocketing, furthering the divide between wealthy homeowners and a younger, poorer, non-white demographic of would-be buyers. As we emerge from the pandemic, 2021 has broken records, with median housing prices rising 23.6% in May compared to the same period last year, reaching a record high of $350,000. Why is this happening? Economists are crediting it to a combination of low interest and mortgage rates, a dearth of sellers and a high number of potential buyers.
the world’s warning shots
It was already the world’s most unaffordable housing market, but the pandemic has added a fresh twist. Rental costs have come down, says Yip Ngai-ming, professor of housing and urban studies at the City University of Hong Kong, in a phone interview with OZY. “Students from outside Hong Kong constitute a key market for rentals and they haven’t been coming for over a year because of the pandemic,” Yip explains. But home prices have actually risen through the crisis, he adds. “The price of houses and the cost of rentals are going in opposite directions.” Such is the city’s housing crisis that at a time when Hong Kong is battling COVID-19 vaccine skepticism, one developer is offering a $1.4 million apartment to inoculated residents through a lottery scheme.
Like America, Australia introduced a federal ban on home evictions at the start of the pandemic last year. When that six-month moratorium ended, most states extended it. But the final three state-level shields expired at the end of March. Since then, housing groups have seen a 10% surge in people seeking help after receiving eviction notices. And a study from November suggests up to 1 million Australians could be at risk of going under Down Under.
Many European nations have enforced moratoriums on evictions and have backed them up with additional assistance measures such as housing aid for struggling families. But the strictures against evictions are ending. France, for instance, extended its regular ban on wintertime evictions — usually from Nov. 1 through March 31 — until June 1. However, with that safety window now expired, evictions have started, and housing nonprofits say up to 66,000 people risk losing their homes.
What if there were no bans on evictions during the pandemic? Last year, an effort by Brazil’s Congress to approve a moratorium on home evictions was vetoed by President Jair Bolsonaro — who has consistently downplayed the COVID-19 threat. The result: From March 2020 to June 2021, at least 14,300 families lost their homes, and another 85,000 families have been threatened with eviction, according to data collected by the housing rights movement Zero Eviction Campaign. The United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing has publicly asked Brazil to stop all evictions during the pandemic. Brazil has the world’s second-highest death toll from COVID-19 after the United States.
But legal curbs on evictions aren’t always enough. South African law requires municipal and other agencies to seek court approval before enforcing evictions. Yet officials in major cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg and the Durban suburban region have been demolishing temporary homes built on public land, without offering alternative housing to those being thrown out onto the streets. More than 1 million households — or around 4 million people — live in such shelters on public land across South Africa.
The global housing crisis holds lessons for America not just on policy specifics — but also on how homelessness for citizens can lead to joblessness for those in power. Ask Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s former taoiseach (prime minister), who stormed to power in 2017 after the country’s near-decade-long financial crisis, promising to solve the housing shortage. Instead, homelessness in Dublin grew 350% between 2014 and 2020, when Varadkar’s party lost to an opposition that made housing the centerpiece of its campaign.
He’s trying to solve a problem his ilk has been accused of exacerbating. The Russian billionaire is among the über-rich, jet-setting individuals who’ve built bolt-holes in New Zealand, in his case a picturesque, $50 million luxury lodge at Helena Bay. Such purchases are driving up home prices and have amplified the nation’s housing crisis — eventually leading New Zealand in 2018 to ban most foreigners from buying houses. Abramov is now partnering with local developers to build affordable, high-quality homes that often have price caps.
Losing one’s home is terrible. Not knowing what to do next can be scarier. That’s where Chalmers, Chen’s real-time chatbot, comes in: It asks whether you need food, shelter or other services and then, using your GPS location, guides you to addresses where you can find help. It even offers up LGBTQ-friendly spaces. The Toronto-based Chen moved to Canada from China when she was 7, but hers is not a stereotypical Asian immigrant success story. She’s a college dropout with an itch to make a difference.
His family fled apartheid in South Africa to build a life in Kenya, only to be faced with deep-seated housing inequality that continues to this day. Land prices in Nairobi rose 535% between 2007 and 2015. Keshavjee is pushing back against that crisis, partnering with innovative designers to build affordable housing for working-class families in Nairobi’s suburbs — where land is cheaper yet transportation is reliable. The homes he builds are mostly owned by residents who earn an average of $1,500 a month (15% of residents earn less than $500 a month). His initiative is called Karibu Homes, which is apt: Karibu means “welcome” in Swahili. If his plan works, ordinary Nairobi residents will finally have access to a housing market that welcomes them.
Witnessing Los Angeles’ high rates of homelessness and lack of housing, the mohawk-sporting Elvis Summers decided to take matters into his own hands by starting The Tiny House Project. Though the city initially seized Summers’ tiny homes in 2016 (it wanted to prioritize permanent over temporary housing but also to quell discontent among wealthier local residents), the failure of the city’s homelessness initiatives prompted a change of course. This year, Summers received the green light to construct tiny home villages, including one in San Fernando Valley’s Alexandria Park. Boasting 103 colorful homes that provide transitional housing for local homeless residents and amenities such as air conditioning, heaters, electricity outlets, meals and bathrooms, the once-unusable park has evolved into an emblem of pride in the fight against the city’s growing homelessness crisis.
Returning home to California’s East Oakland after fleeing domestic violence in Mississippi, Dominique Walker struggled to find housing for herself and her children. Everywhere she looked, gentrification was driving out the city’s longtime residents. That experience fueled Walker to co-found Moms 4 Housing, a coalition of marginalized mothers working to reclaim vacant Oakland homes for homeless residents while demanding shelter as a human right. In a highly publicized episode in January 2020, Moms 4 Housing and the Oakland Community Land Trust reached an agreement with a major real estate company to buy a property the moms had previously occupied for months before being summarily evicted.
For years, single-family zoning laws in some of America’s hottest real estate markets have prevented young people and poorer families from easily accessing affordable housing. Now, from Pasadena to Dallas and in many other parts of the country, accessory dwelling units — also known as granny flats — are emerging as a quick fix. In many jurisdictions, these units, built in the homeowner’s yard, don’t violate single-family zoning rules, and they create more affordable housing while potentially providing the homeowner with extra income. The embrace of granny flats has grown during the pandemic.
Three decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa’s struggle to provide affordable housing continues. The country also faces frequent power blackouts. Cape Town’s first private, low-cost housing project, however, might be the answer. Houses at the Watergate Estate are powered by solar panels leased to residents at prearranged, affordable prices. You can help subsidize housing and offset your own carbon footprint by buying these solar panels from anywhere in the world on an exchange.
Earn From Your Home
But solar-powered homes can do more than just help navigate electricity shortages. They can help you earn money too. BillionBricks, a Singapore-based housing startup, has designed smart homes that generate four times the amount of solar energy the house consumes. That allows the homeowner to sell the remaining solar power and use their earnings to pay off their home loan or other utility bills. Prototypes are being tested in India — where 1.77 million people are homeless — and in the Philippines, where BillionBricks hopes to build its first community of solar-powered homes in 2022.
It Takes a Village
Many of America’s nearly 38,000 homeless veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes it hard for them to adjust to living with civilians in traditional shelters. Now “villages” of tiny furnished homes, each measuring 240 square feet, are emerging as transitional housing solutions for former soldiers. The veterans are guaranteed a roof over their head, basic social services, training to rebuild a professional career outside the military and, most important, a sense of community with other veterans they can relate to.
Innovators are yet again proving that there is very little that can’t be 3D-printed. And faced with a global housing crisis, companies and nonprofits are developing 3D tech that could change the course of the construction industry, producing construction materials to build houses faster and at a lower cost than conventional methods. With the right 3D-printing technology, a house can be built in a day for only $4,000. Seeing the potential benefits, the nonprofit New Story partnered with construction tech company Icon to develop the Vulcan 2, a 3D printer that they then used to build a community for 50 low-income families in Tabasco, Mexico.
Reminiscent of the Little Free Library movement, in 2017 a Parisian restaurant started Les Frigos Solidaires, or Solidarity Fridges. The system is simple: People and businesses with packaged food that would otherwise go to waste put it in one of the fridges, and people who can’t afford food are welcome to take some. Killing two birds with one stone — food waste and food insecurity — the idea has spawned a community fridge movement that gathered steam during the pandemic, with the coolers popping up all over France and spreading around the globe. No one needs them more than homeless people.
- Sean Culligan