Housing insecurity, also known as housing instability, affects far more people than may admit it. The term is broad, and it encompasses many of the country’s vulnerable populations, as well as some people who would not be considered vulnerable. Some people’s version of housing insecurity is much more acute than others, but overall, a spread of housing insecurity denotes an unstable economy and/or social safety net.
What is the definition of housing insecurity?
According to HUD User, housing insecurity is "an umbrella term that encompasses several dimensions of housing problems people may experience, including affordability, safety, quality, insecurity, and loss of housing."
It's important to note that housing instability doesn't necessarily mean that a household is homeless or one step from homelessness. It is more expansive and includes anyone who is behind on their rent or mortgage payments, as well as anyone who isn’t confident they’ll be able to make those housing payments. This includes a lot of people, many of whom would not outwardly seem to be struggling with income inequality.
What are some of the terms that fall under the umbrella?
The "missing middle," gentrification, and community displacement -- all of these are tied into housing insecurity. Therefore, concepts like adaptive reuse, special improvement districts, and urban redevelopment also are under the umbrella -- because they attempt to address and solve housing insecurity at a neighborhood level.
Causes of housing insecurity
There are many causes of housing insecurity. While they disproportionately affect lower income tiers, some are a bane on middle- and upper-middle-income households as well. These have to do with lack of other resources and lack of a safety net.
Causes of housing insecurity include:
- High housing costs (especially in markets oversaturated with luxury housing).
- Income inequality becoming more acute.
- Lack of available housing (connected to exclusionary zoning).
- Economic instability (often tied to job instability and lack of generational wealth).
- Lack of mobility (connected to mass transit).
- Public health.
- The need for the working class to live nearby the workplace.
Who are some groups that are housing insecure?
Because the defining characteristic of housing insecurity is simply not being confident about keeping current on your rent or mortgage payments, people from any socioeconomic group might at some point experience it. However, certain populations are much more familiar with housing insecurity than others. Those who live with it as part of regular life include:
For the homeless population, the fear of not being able to maintain housing has become a reality, and they are the least likely to be able to break out of it.
An expanding income equality gap means that many middle class folk join the lower income tiers in being housing insecure even though one of more adults in a household may work a steady job.
Aging in place
Elderly people who are aging in place face a different type of housing insecurity. They may pay low mortgage costs or have houses that they own outright, but they have difficulty paying for usual household expenses, like higher-than-usual electricity bills or major home improvements such as a new roof, might add up and eventually create housing insecurity.
One of the great disparities of many vacation hot spots is that so many people are needed to keep resorts and attractions up and running, but if the location doesn’t offer subsidized worker housing, those people can’t afford to live anywhere near where they work. As communities like Napa, Vail, the Hamptons, and even Santa Monica have been grappling with for years, bussers and housekeeping staff don’t generally want to commute an hour for the opportunity to earn $12 an hour.
Measuring housing insecurity
Because housing insecurity is a pervasive problem with a lot of stigma, there isn’t an easy way to measure it. You cannot, for example, get accurate data on a percentage of housing- insecure households by looking at the number of applications for Section 8, because plenty of households too wealthy to qualify are way behind on their market-rate rents and mortgages.
To define housing insecurity, the Department of Health and Human Services
- Poor housing quality
- Unstable neighborhoods
- Trouble paying rent and utilities
- Housing cost burden (i.e., high housing costs in proportion to income)
- is a variable in this, but there is a significant variance in renters versus homeowners. Renters with high housing cost burden are much more likely to fall behind in paying)
Solutions for housing insecurity
Depending on the nature of the housing insecurity, various solutions may work. Typically, financial aid offerings are targeted to lower income groups, but to solve the issue in community, many places create housing assistance programs for specific workforces or underprivileged groups. And employers in small resort communities with acute shortages in workforce housing are wise to provide worker housing as part of their compensation package.
Most of the development incentives, zoning changes, and social programs created by city planners are created to fight housing insecurity amongst certain populations, or in the city at large. This includes upzoning, transit-oriented community (TOC) programs, workforce housing developments, and housing subsidies.
Many of these programs are offered to people with lower than median household income, but people of any income bracket can benefit from new construction in upzoned neighborhoods, or from initiatives like California’s ADU legislation that allow any single-family homeowners to convert to a duplex or more units without rezoning.
When personal emergencies overwhelm the other variables in life, stably employed and contributing members of society will lose housing, and in these situations, emergency shelters are a temporary solution. While shelters are only meant to be transitional, they offer safety and support and should be seen as part of a continuum. They can lead to eventual housing security for people who follow a plan to discharge once they’ve met certain educational and employment goals.
Finally, of course, there are solutions that weren’t commonly used at all until COVID-19 and now are a lifeline for tens of millions of Americans: Mortgage forbearance and eviction moratoriums. Landlords and lenders definitely hope these aren’t part of the permanent solution, but for the moment, both are propping up huge swathes of the population.
Housing insecurity and the future
Housing insecurity is not merely indicative of households living beyond their means. It is a barometer for measuring whether and how the economy, urban planning, and the social safety net are serving or failing the population. Understanding the causes of it and what’s needed to fight it in specific locations will help investors and developers know what projects to put weight behind because they’ll get support from city planners and the community.