The Real Cost of Housing During a Global Pandemic

In addition to schools being closed, markets running out of toilet paper and the need to wear facial coverings, the world is also facing a crisis in housing and shelter due to the novel coronavirus. Residents and landlords are financially struggling, and the social distancing and quarantine procedures that are needed to slow the spread of the virus require more space than is often readily available. Despite being one of the wealthiest nations in the world, nearly half of American citizens renting in the United States were rent burdened[1] in 2017 according to the US Federal Reserve. Covid-19 has only exacerbated the housing problem and the ramifications of this pandemic consistently highlight that wealth does not always equal success. The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is irrefutable, but so are the costs that aren’t typically measured in GDP, unemployment or other traditional economic measures of success. Accordingly, the utilization of outcome-based non-economic measures of success that account for the lived-experience of people—the small things that make a difference day to day—is imperative to an inclusive and equitable recovery in the wake of this pandemic.

In many places, public officials and governments have taken steps to help their constituents take on the cost of housing during the pandemic. Government assistance has been critical for many people who have been laid off or unable to find work. However, Covid-19 is not going anywhere and as moratoriums on rent and other housing debt begin to be lifted, the struggle to afford adequate housing and shelter remains. Before the pandemic America already had an affordable housing crisis.

Houses on a hillside in California Bay Area.

 California, in particular the Bay Area, is one of the most housing stressed areas in the US. Using the Social Progress framework and methodology, in April of 2018 we released the Social Progress Index: US States. California ranked last on Shelter component, scoring just 14.06 points. This showed that California, even with incredible financial resources and a plethora of innovation from the technological sector, had failed to adequately house and shelter its residents. In an effort to understand this alarming finding we then created the Social Progress Index for California Counties which provides a unique and magnified way to evaluate the lived experience of people in the region. Due to the localized nature of the index, our team was able to use state-specific indicators to provide insight on the social progress of California’s counties. In particular, the component of shelter consists of five indicators which can be used to assess the nature of shelter in the region: housing overcrowding, housing cost burden (owners), housing cost burden (renters), outstanding regional housing needs allocation[2] (RHNA) and homelessness.

The localized and tailored nature of the Social Progress Index for California Counties can help provide insight on Covid-19 interventions when paired with other available data such as the Covid-19 Vulnerability Index which was created by our team to map the 500 most at-risk cities in the US during the early stages of the pandemic. For example, of the 500 most vulnerable cities, Apple Valley in the county of San Bernardino, California is ranked as the 52nd most vulnerable city to Covid-19. Given that Covid-19 has exacerbated many underlying issues, especially in the United States as the country grapples with social injustices, the county-level Social Progress Index can then be used to identify social progress weaknesses in the region and localized tailored solutions can be applied to help us build back a better and more inclusive society.

As the Social Progress Index confirms, California has real challenges around expensive housing and homelessness. San Bernardino county, where Apple Valley is located, is particularly vulnerable to housing issues, scoring 38.62 points (50th out of 56 ranked counties) on the component of Shelter on the 2019 index.  In particular, it significantly underperforms when compared to its economic peer counties on the indicator of housing overcrowding. This is particularly relevant given the necessity of space and social distance in the era of Covid-19 where six feet is the minimum required to stop or slow the spread of the virus. To effectively quarantine or social distance, a home must have individual bathrooms for all members of the household and have enough space to ensure that individuals do not make contact. While public health requirements presuppose that people are able to follow these guidelines, many people do not have access to those types of amenities and that amount of space. Homes are expensive in California, and for many, small and shared spaces are the most affordable option, while places that provide space to safely social distance and quarantine are beyond their budget. Even Marin, the highest-scoring county on the Social Progress Index for California Counties struggles on the component of shelter, ranking 50th on the cost burdened owners indicator with 33.78% of homeowners paying more than 30% of their income for housing.

Social distancing measures have been suggested to significantly decrease the spread of Covid-19. However, to appropriately stay six feet apart people need a significant amount of space, which can be very expensive.

According to the LA Times, mass unemployment due to Covid-19 could also lead to significant increases in homelessness in the United States. While California may see a smaller increase in homelessness, the already significant homeless population could be even more at risk without access to proper shelter and sanitation, both of which can provide some protection of the virus. Additionally, even if people are able to evade homelessness, if less income is available for housing as the economy takes a turn for the worse, they may find themselves downsizing and moving into smaller or more crowded apartments; a situation which has the potential to increase the spread of Covid-19.

Housing insecurity, overcrowding and even homelessness are perhaps other less obvious consequences of the pandemic, impacting the lived experience of people across the country and around the world, even as economic indicators and an occasionally rising stock market make the headlines. However, by using tools such as the Social Progress Index, we are able to understand the true implications of the novel coronavirus and help identify areas in which we can make meaningful change to build back a better and more inclusive world in the wake of this crisis.

For more information on the Social Progress Imperative’s resources in response to Covid-19 visit: https://socialprogress.blog/covid-19-resources/


[1] The federal reserve defines “rent burdened” as an expenditure on housing that is greater than 30%. For more information: https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/assessing-the-severity-of-rent-burden-on-low-income-families-20171222.htm

[2] The percentage of construction permits outstanding to meet Regional Housing Needs Assessment as reported to California Department of Housing and Community Development as required by law. For more information: https://www.hcd.ca.gov/community-development/index.shtml

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