Using a newly released Census Bureau analysis, researchers at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) have finally been able to do something that has eluded most observers: contrast pre-pandemic and pandemic-era housing with hard numbers.
For a variety of both practical and political reasons, census data from 2020—which includes plenty of vital information for housing—has been nearly impossible to compare with previous years. That changed recently, as Census Bureau officials came up with a statistical workaround, as well as adding data from third-party sources for the first time, according to JCHS, allowing researchers to draw some real conclusions—specifically about how much affordability suffered due to the pandemic.
The numbers, they say, are “astonishing.” Assuming that the new methodology is accurate, JCHS researchers Alexander Hermann and Whitney Airgood-Obrycki said that in a single year, the pandemic fully erased one-fifth of the last decade’s gains in affordability, with cost-burdened households jumping 1.5% in 2020 alone.
“Rising cost burdens were remarkably widespread,” they wrote. “The share of Black households with cost burdens rose an astounding 2.4%, but burden rates also increased 1.6% for white, 0.8% for Asian and 0.6% for Hispanic households. Likewise, the burden rate increased across all income groups.”
Cost-burdened households are defined as those that spend more than 30% of their incomes on direct housing costs. This metric is widely used in government and policymaking, though it has significant limitations.
For renters, the impact of the pandemic was particularly brutal—a 2.6% increase in cost-burdened households. That erases more than half of the gains made for renters since 2011, when the burden rate peaked at just under 51% before falling 4.4% over the next eight years.
In terms of income, the hardest-hit group were those making $30,000 to $45,000, a demographic that saw its share of cost-burdened families rise 4.2%.
For context, the researchers note that cost-burdened households rose only 1.8% in the two years of the great recession, from 2008 to 2010.
Those who own homes were not spared either, though the effect on them was less significant. An overall 1% increase in cost-burdens set homeowners back about one-tenth of the way to the last high-point of that metric, when 30% were cost-burdened in 2010.
Airgood-Obrycki and Hermann are careful to note that their data is inclusive of just the calendar year of 2020, before the economy started to recover job losses and other pandemic-related expenses—extra child care during school closures, for instance—started to fade. Since then, a lot has changed, including massive price appreciation for homes and historic inflation, meaning that an up-to-date picture of affordability and housing cost burdens will require further analysis.
“Whether the economic recovery since 2020 has been enough to offset rapidly rising home prices and rents remains to be seen,” they wrote, “but the pre-pandemic affordability crisis assuredly continues.”