Housing is much more than a roof over one’s head. Having a place to call home is a basic human need—a place of safety, stability, support, and belonging. Stable housing roots people in their community and allows access to the opportunities that are necessary to thrive and enjoy a brighter future.

Housing stability is not something that millions of extremely low-income Americans can take for granted. According to the 2022 State of the Nation’s Housing report by Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, more than 70 percent of renters with incomes below $30,000 a year paid more than a third of their income for housing, and an additional 20 percent of them paid more than half, leaving very few resources to pay for necessities such as food and health care. The situation for extremely low-income homeowners was no better. The percentage of housing cost-burdened households earning less than $30,000 increased from 70 to 73 percent between 2019 and 2020.

Housing cost burdens are unequally distributed by race, with Black and Latino households two to three times more likely to pay outsized shares of their income toward housing. Significant racial disparities were not limited to housing costs. Households of color were significantly more likely to be evicted, foreclosed upon, or displaced from their homes by gentrification. They were also more likely to live in units that were overcrowded or contaminated by lead, asbestos, and other environmental hazards within high-poverty, low-opportunity communities. Families of color have also carried a heavier burden due to the pandemic, from higher rates of disease and mortality to higher rates of job loss and income that led to missed rent or mortgage payments.

The economic consequences of the pandemic sparked an unprecedented response to the housing crisis. Greater awareness of this issue led to national moratoria on evictions and foreclosures that kept millions of families in their homes, while more than $55 billion in emergency financial assistance for renters and homeowners helped millions of households pay off their housing debt. Preliminary data from the US Department of the Treasury indicates emergency rental assistance targeted low-income households of color. Dozens of states and localities passed new short- and long-term protections for tenants and explored new kinds of partnerships with nonprofit and community groups.

As the pandemic continues into its third year, many aspire to a return to “normal.” But with respect to housing, a return to how things were is neither possible nor desirable. Long-standing racial disparities provide evidence of how bias and discrimination are a feature, and not a bug, of our housing system. The dramatic increase in both rents and home prices threatens to intensify affordability challenges for low- and moderate-income families.

Read the full article about transforming the housing system by Charles Rutheiser and Jeanne Fekade-Sellassie at Stanford Social Innovation Review.