COVID-19 exposes the Black community’s long history of housing instability

Tiwanda Evans spends the afternoon with her grandson Ralph Jackson at her apartment in Hunter’s Grove Apartments in Austell on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. Because of her asthma and diabetes, health care worker Evans hasn’t been able to work her regular job and has struggled to pay her rent. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Tiwanda Evans spends the afternoon with her grandson Ralph Jackson at her apartment in Hunter’s Grove Apartments in Austell on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. Because of her asthma and diabetes, health care worker Evans hasn’t been able to work her regular job and has struggled to pay her rent. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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First, she was $1,000 behind. Then, the amount doubled.

Since last March, when COVID-19 shut down the nation and ushered in one of the most severe economic downturns on record, Courtney Marshall has been playing a distressing game of catch-up on rent.

The single mother of two was among hundreds of thousands of Georgians who lost their jobs when the pandemic hit. Financial help from aid organizations allowed her to temporarily wipe the slate clean with her landlord. But she fell behind again — unable to work because of her 8- and 10-year-old sons attending school remotely.

At one point, Marshall owed $4,500 in rent.

“I’ve got it down to about $1,700 now,” she says. “I’m just trying to get it down to zero, but it’s hard.”

Housing insecurity is not a new problem for Black America. Jim Crow-era discrimination and low wages often made it difficult for African Americans to keep roofs over their heads and redlining made it tough to buy, issues that federal laws would later try to correct with debatable success.

But the coronavirus pandemic could be one of the greatest threats to Black housing stability yet, say affordable housing advocates and university researches on the subject.

Black people are less likely than whites to own their homes — the Census Bureau puts the number at 47% in 2020 compared to white Americans at 76%. Yet, Blacks made up 35% of those evicted nationally since March, according to statistics from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

Lost wages

African Americans are also more likely to be among those who have lost jobs in the past year because they represent a disproportionate number of frontline workers in such occupations as retail, hospitality and the restaurant industries.

Nationally, Black unemployment is at 9.2% compared to 5.7% for whites.

“It was already falling apart for lots of people before this,” said Daniel Pasciuti, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University. “In the last year with COVID and people losing their jobs and business cutting back hours, now we’re just watching the whole process on steroids.”

In metro Atlanta, Black women have borne the brunt of the housing insecurity. For instance, Black women make up 90% of those seeking rental assistance, according to a intake survey Georgia State is conducting to get more information about those in need.

“COVID simply exposed the inequities that were already in place,” said Rashawn Ray, a governance studies expert at the Brookings Institute.

There has been funding to try to address the problem.

Millions have poured into metro Atlanta, especially in its largest communities through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in March 2020. CARES also bumped up unemployment aid with as much as $600 more a week, but many Americans called state unemployment offices for months trying to access the funds with no luck.

And more has come in from philanthropic resources.

But Monica Evette DeLancy, executive director of WeThriveRenters, which helps match Cobb County residents like Marshall with funding, said the issue of housing insecurity in the Black community is structural.

“The people who are struggling to pay rent were also struggling to pay rent before COVID,” said DeLancy, whose organization has received money from Oprah Winfrey’s $12 million coronavirus relief fund. “When the CARES money is gone, the problems will continue ... because of low-paying jobs.”

And it’s hard for people to get back on track with an eviction on their record, experts said. An eviction filing can follow a renter for years in much the same way bankruptcy impacts getting a home loan.

“Even if an eviction doesn’t go through, just having an eviction filing is detrimental to finding another place to stay,” said Bambie Hayes-Brown, president and CEO of Atlanta-based housing advocacy Georgia Advancing Communities Together.

Hayes-Brown knows the housing instability perils first hand. While she is now a real estate broker as well as leader of Georgia ACT, she was once simultaneously pregnant, homeless and raising two teenagers. She bounced from public housing to living in an extended stay hotel.

“My board is always telling me, ‘Bambie, you’re way too passionate about this and too close to it,’” she said. “I’m close to it because I have been there.”

Protecting the powerless

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

In 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act banning discrimination in housing based on race, religion, national origin and gender.

Ostensibly its existence would dissuade the real estate industry from appraising values of homes in Black neighborhoods at much lower values than comparable houses in white neighborhoods. Or convince banks to lend to those who previously been shut out of the system.

It was also supposed to direct landlords of rental property to treat Black lessees the same way they would whites.

But reality has been much different, the housing experts said.

Houses in majority Black neighborhoods are priced on average 23% lower than similar structures in white neighborhoods, erasing $156 billion in value from African American communities, according to the Brookings Institute.

And 1 in 5 black women will face eviction in their lifetimes compared with 1 in 15 white women, according to report by the Center for American Progress.

The evictions have become especially fraught in metro Atlanta as gentrification is moving Blacks out of the city’s core and into the suburbs where legal help to fight the expulsions is harder to find.

“With the suburbanization of poverty and people being unable to afford to live in Atlanta, they are moving out to other suburbs who may treat these issues differently and have even fewer resources,” Georgia State University associate law professor Lauren Sudeall said.

Housing advocates said knowing what is legally permissible is important, as landlords have increased late fees or required more upfront security payments to protect themselves. A national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on evictions, put in place in 2020 to protect renters during COVID, only heightened the issue.

“Even before this pandemic hit, the Atlanta region had an eviction problem,” said Andrea Rease, executive director of affordable housing non-profit Star-C. “There were a lot of people who were just caught in a cycle of eviction where they were late on their rent and a few days later, eviction would be filed. Then they would pay the eviction fees, but they were so high they would be behind every month.”

Tiwanda Evans’ grandson Ralph Jackson points out to the street while spending the afternoon with his family at Evans’ apartment in Hunter’s Grove Apartments in Austell, Georgia, on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. Because of her asthma and diabetes, healthcare worker Evans hasn’t been able to work her regular job and has struggled to pay her rent. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

icon to expand image

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Fighting to survive

Tiwanda Evans in many ways is the face of the pandemic’s impact.

She and her husband were fully employed before COVID-19 washed over the nation, she as a healthcare worker and he as a landscaper.

But she lost her job in early 2020 shortly after the virus spread, a blessing in some ways for an asthmatic and diabetic concerned COVID-19 would be even more deadly for her if she contracted the disease at work. Her husband’s 76-year-old mother and the couple’s grandson also live in their Austell apartment, increasing her anxieties.

But Evans’ weekly unemployment of $228 barely covered the couple’s $970 rent, and left her nothing for food, utilities and other bills. She did receive some supplemental money from the CARES Act last summer and fall, but it was inconsistent. Her husband’s landscaping jobs also waned as manicured lawns and immaculate gardens took on less importance during the spread of the disease.

“It’s stressful,” she said, adding that the couple is caught up on their rent now because of help from Cobb’s WeThriveRenters. “I was pretty depressed and upset and that causes a lot of arguments in the home.”

For Kyle Coleman, one of the biggest challenges Black renters face is being heard.

The Clayton County resident owes $7,000 in back rent and has had an eviction filed against her, but has struggled to get financial help from philanthropic organizations or from CARES Act funding.

To shed light on her predicament and those of others, she co-operates “In Need of Housing in Georgia,” a private Facebook group where members can discuss their circumstances, offer advice or connect each other with help. It’s also a place where members can vent their frustrations and sometimes sell belongings if they need to raise cash.

“What places help w security deposit?” one poster asked the group recently.

“So ready to give up....these properties love to take advantage of people in dire situations,” another wrote.

Coleman said members of the group are at wit’s end on what to do next. They are vulnerable because they often don’t have upfront cash for fees and security deposits, have been evicted in the past or find landlords won’t accept vouchers.

“My people need help,” Coleman said. “I know people who are sleeping in cars right now. It’s a shame.”