The COVID-19 pandemic isn't just a health crisis. It has also laid bare chronic issues affecting the state, chief among them the lack of affordable housing.
Even before the pandemic, the numbers were staring us in the face. Renters in Essex County are spending 37% of their incomes on housing, well above the 30% federal guideline. According to the Federal Reserve, 39% would struggle to come up with $400 for household emergencies such as car repairs or a leaky roof. Overall, the Fed said, 3 out of 10 adults are either unable to pay their bills or are one modest financial setback away from disaster.
Well, disaster is here.
Nearly 30% of Bay State residents have missed a rent or mortgage payment since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic set off a tidal wave of furloughs and layoffs, MassINC reported earlier this week. If the looming recession lasts another six months, the think tank said, that number will grow to 40%.
"This is a compound crisis," said Steve Koczela, president of The MassINC Polling Group. "It started with a public health emergency, but economic challenges and housing issues are piling up and deepening long-standing socioeconomic divides."
The economic hardship unleashed by COVID-19 is falling disproportionately on part-time and hourly workers. Fifty-seven percent of part-time workers have reported losing wages since the crisis began, compared to 29% of full-timers.
"Renters and those who live in lower-income households are more likely to be furloughed or unemployed," MassINC said in its report.
Young people in particular are feeling the pain. People 18 to 29 were more than four times as likely to have missed a payment as those ages 45 to 59, MassINC said.
The state moratorium on evictions will end with the state of emergency, yet the unpaid bills will remain. Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Baker's Housing Choice Bill, which would ease local zoning requirements and help create 135,000 housing units by 2025, languishes in the Legislature's Ways and Means Committee.
It is clear that state and local officials cannot delay addressing the lack of affordable housing until the coronavirus pandemic is in hand. COVID-19 and housing insecurity aren't separate issues. As the MassINC study shows, they are part of the same crisis.