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Soaring home prices and buying activity serve as success stories of the U.S. economic rebound. However, inequalities that predate the COVID-19 pandemic are still challenges that need to be addressed, according to a recent report from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS).

JCHS released its State of the Nation’s Housing 2021 report on Wed., June 16, alongside a panel discussion, which showed that the pandemic exacerbated the impacts of unequal access to decent, affordable housing, even as the economy rebounds.

Speakers included Chris Herbert, managing director, Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies; Gary Acosta, co-founder and CEO, National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals; Clarence Anthony, CEO and executive director, National League of Cities; and Erika Poethig, special assistant to the president for Housing and Urban Policy, The White House Domestic Policy Council.

Homeownership Ticks Up, But Not Equally for All

Low-interest rates coupled with gains in savings among younger renters have contributed to an increase in national homeownership, but housing disparities among low-income and minority households persisted throughout the past year and a half.

“As markets recover, the data shows significant levels of financial stress remain among households, and the levels of financial distress are uneven across households, being disproportionately felt by renters and households of color,” said Dan McCue, a senior research associate at JCHS, in the report.

While 17% of households were behind on rent earlier in 2021, McCue pointed out the share rises to 21% for Hispanic renters and 29% for Black renters—nearly triple the 11% share for white renters.

“Getting these roughly 7-million households who are behind on rent caught up on housing payments before eviction moratoriums expire will be a growing concern in the coming months,” he said. “There is also remaining stress on households as well.”

Nine percent of all homeowners were behind on mortgage payments in early 2021. That rose to almost 16% of Black, Hispanic and Asian homeowners—double the 7% share of white homeowners behind on payments.

The Black/white homeownership gap stood at 28.1% during the first quarter of 2021, down from its record high of 30.8%in 2019. Despite the decline, experts said it’s still large by historical standards.

“This issue is not just an issue that affects Black and Latino families,” Acosta said. “It’s an issue that affects the overall market.”

Income inequality is partially to blame for the disparity, making it difficult for renter households of color to save up enough money for a down payment and closing costs. The report showed median income of white households ($71,000) was 65% higher than Black households ($43,000) and nearly 30% higher than Hispanic ($55,000) households.

“I think the go-to answer is better access to mortgage credit and down payment assistance,” Acosta added. “Especially because of the wealth gap, down payment assistance is an important tool and, secondly, access to credit has never been tougher right now.”

Home Sales a Silver Lining

Home sales served as the shining star for the housing market—and JCHS’ report—which was primarily driven by buyers that delayed purchasing earlier in a pandemic.

Existing-home sales rose 5.6%, and new single-family home sales jumped 20.4% for 2020. As a result, total home sales were at their highest level since the peak of the housing boom in 2006.

Surging price gains coupled with little inventory and record-low interest rates have fueled the frenzied market and raised questions of a potential bubble.

According to Herbert, significant differences in the current and mid-2000s make a bubble—and possible burst—unlikely.

“We had very speculative behavior [back then],” Herbert said. “It was very different from what we have today. Today we’ve been undersupplied in housing for a long period of time, and demand has been growing, but it hasn’t been that strong.”

A much-needed injection of new homes could be on the horizon, as single-family housing starts hit 1-million units in August 2020 and continued to exceed that pace through the first quarter of 2021.

If it persists, experts predict that 2021 could be the first year that single-family starts surpass the 1-million mark since 2007.

As the nation continues its return to the norm, homeowners may feel more comfortable putting their homes on the market, which could help slow price appreciation and boost the inventory.

Financial Distress and Potential Solutions

Financial distress during the pandemic has been felt across the board since the onset of the pandemic. However, the report showed it has disproportionately affected low-income households.

Low- and moderate-income renters were burdened at the highest rates, with cost burdens affecting 82% of renter households with incomes below $25,000 a year.

“This is a total of 11-million low-income renter households cost-burdened—8 million of whom were severely burdened, spending more than half their income on housing costs,” McCue said. “As we’ve seen over the past year, dedicating so much income to housing affects the ability of millions of cost-burdened households to build the savings needed to weather a financial storm.”

As a result, he said, millions of households were left in a position where even a minor loss of income could put them at risk of losing their homes.

“We have taken steps to protect those who have felt the disproportionate pain that the pandemic has created for both the public health risk and for the economy,” Poethig said. “We know that the eviction moratorium has been an important part of that strategy and has most definitely saved lives.”

According to Poethig, the Biden Administration is working with Congress and several agencies to support homeowners and renters as the moratoriums end.

The Biden Administration has proposed new programs that would reportedly address many of the challenges present in homeownership markets, including adding new affordable housing construction, combatting exclusionary zoning and providing down payment assistance for the socially disadvantaged.

Jordan Grice is RISMedia’s associate content editor. Email him your real estate news to jgrice@rismedia.com.

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