Housing insecurity has been a particularly insidious aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent recession as households’ collective ability to contain the illness relies on their ability to isolate themselves at home. There are several additional factors to consider here, but at its core, the question remains: if you are facing eviction or foreclosure, where do you go?
The pandemic has exacerbated housing insecurity across the state, but West Virginians have struggled to find affordable housing for decades. Despite the meaningful recovery in employment since April 2020, when unemployment peaked at nearly 16 percent, housing security continues to lag. Over the pandemic, the estimated percentage of West Virginians behind on rent or mortgage payments averaged 12.7 percent. Housing insecurity estimates averaged nearly 20 percent in 2020. The most recent data collected during the week of April 27, 2022, averages just over six percent.
While both homeowners and renters have experienced heightened housing insecurity over the past two years, renters are much more likely to experience housing insecurity due to costs. Rent prices have spiked significantly in recent months, further exacerbating housing insecurity statewide and nationally. There is little statewide data available, but preliminary figures indicate that rent has increased by roughly two to 10 percent in several West Virginia counties.
The most recent US Census data indicated that four percent of homeowners are behind on their mortgage, and an additional four percent have little or no confidence in their ability to pay it next month. However, the outcomes are much grimmer for renters: over the same period, 13 percent of renters indicated that they were behind on rent. Furthermore, nearly a quarter of renters reported having little to no confidence in their ability to pay rent next month.
There is also a sizeable discrepancy in housing insecurity between adults with and without children. Households without children had a three percent housing insecurity rate in most recent estimates. However, in households with children, this rate jumped to 23 percent—over seven times the childless household rate. This discrepancy indicates that housing insecurity is a much more severe issue for renters with children, making these hosueholds some of the most vulnerable in the state.
As a consequence of housing insecurity, houselessness severely threatens community wellness in West Virginia. As of January 2020, there were over 1,300 people who were without a home on any given night in the state. Experts suspect that the ongoing pandemic and opioid crisis have contributed to increased homelessness across the state and nationally.
Historically, federal and state supports were almost exclusively designed to aid homeowners, leaving renters without critical aid that could meaningfully address housing insecurity. More recently, in response to the pandemic, the federal government sent states funds to distribute to renters struggling to make ends meet. These funds — totaling over $350 million — helped the state create a rental assistance program in March 2022, an unprecedented opportunity for West Virginia. The state has been slow to spend these funds due to a lack of infrastructure and experience with such programs, prompting the refund of $3 million. Despite this development, housing assistance programs in the state received $42 million in spring 2022, which will be crucial for low-income renters.
While the federal government has been sending additional support to people facing housing insecurity, the state and local levels have not made as robust efforts. State legislators and other government officials have done little to improve housing outcomes. In fact, rather than passing proactive legislation to reduce housing insecurity and homelessness, they have introduced legislation that makes addressing it more difficult — for instance, by limiting where homeless shelters can be in relation to schools. While this and other harmful bills did not pass, these and other similar bills reflect legislators’ and decisionmakers’ attitudes toward these vulnerable populations.
West Virginia must prioritize efforts to improve housing outcomes for all of its residents. Beyond introducing and supporting laws that can ensure funds reach vulnerable renters and homeowners, the state must also ensure that the agencies that distribute these funds are adequately staffed and funded. The efficacy of the distribution of these funds relies on a system that can support such efforts. The state has a unique opportunity to reduce homelessness and housing insecurity in the face of hardships, especially for renters with children. Addressing this issue for the most vulnerable in the state will create improved outcomes for all. Such action would create a happier and healthier West Virginia.
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