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A Housing Issue Likely To Outlast Any Moratorium: The Rising Cost Of Rent Itself

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For tenants and their advocates, the CDC's decision to renew an eviction moratorium for most of the country where COVID cases are still rising was welcome news. But millions of Americans face a housing issue that will likely outlast any moratorium - the rising cost of rent itself. Prices have absolutely soared in 2021 compared to recent pre-pandemic years. The median rent jumped more than 11% nationally between January and July, according to research from Apartment List. For context, the average increase was only 3% in the first half of each year between 2017 and 2019.

BROOKE PARSONS: I just think that everyone's income has changed, so things may look a little more expensive. That's why the moratorium helps - because any money that's coming is pretty much going straight to bills that I did lose track of during last year.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That is Brooke Parsons, a St. Louis native living and working in hospitality jobs in New Orleans. Like many in the industry, she has struggled to keep her income steady in the last year.

PARSONS: I just kind of remember the week after Mardi Gras, we kind of started hearing a little more about COVID. And within the next two weeks or three weeks or so, we were shutting down. But in June, I returned back to work at the Marriott. I was working full time but wasn't making much. So I ended up going to a local pizza shop, and I'd say that between that time is when I started actually getting hit with the hard finances.

KELLY: A study out last month from the National Low Income Housing Coalition underscores how common Parsons' experience is - working multiple jobs to pay the rent. Based on data from 2020, the group found no city or county - not one - where the state or local minimum wage could make a modest two-bedroom rental affordable for someone working a standard 40-hour workweek. Diane Yentel is the group's president and CEO.

DIANE YENTEL: The challenges of housing affordability have always most impacted the lowest-income people - so low-wage workers or seniors or people with disabilities on very limited fixed income. And because of decades of systemic racism in multiple systems, including housing, the majority of the 6 1/2 million renters who are behind on rent are people of color.

SHAPIRO: We wanted to hear directly from some other people struggling to keep up with a rental market that was not designed to meet the housing needs of many in this pandemic.

TAKENYA LINDSEY: My name is Takenya Lindsey, and I am a mom of four living in Akron, Ohio. So in the middle of the pandemic, my former landlord decided to sell their home to an investor. During that time, I tried hard to find housing. But with, you know, the shutdown, it was hard to locate housing that was available or affordable housing. It was very difficult, I think, for my son, who was a senior in high school. You know, we were trying to manage working from home. And then I had, you know, my 3-year-old, where a daycare was closed, running through the house as well.

I have not found a place. You know, a lot of it is just not affordable for me. I mean, we're talking probably in the range of anywhere from 300-plus what I was paying in rent prior. My children keep me positive. I just have to go back to making sure that they're happy, that they understand that, you know, my adult issues don't have anything to do with them and that they will continue to be able to enjoy their childhood the best that I can.

KELLY: Like Takenya Lindsey, Devonne Moise of Charlotte, N.C., also struggles with the toll that all of her unsuccessful apartment searches has taken on her kids.

DEVONNE MOISE: I have five children. We kind of got into a hard place during COVID. You know, we lost our income. And we're trying to find somewhere else but finding it very, very difficult, almost impossible to transition and just losing so much money in application fees. And now I'm at a point where I'm not even taking my younger children to see the property because they're getting so excited. Mom, we're going to have our own room. Oh, we're going to have a yard. And then I get this message - sorry. And they're like, Mom, what happened? So moving forward, I'm just - I don't want them to see it. So our option, if nothing works out, is to - all of us to be stuck in a hotel room. It's nothing else we can do.

KELLY: And options for rental assistance, according to Diane Yentel of the National Low Income Housing Coalition - they rarely meet the need.

YENTEL: Seventy-five percent of people who need housing assistance get none. They stand in line, add their names to years-, sometimes decades-long waiting lists, hoping to win what is essentially a housing lottery system where only the lucky 25% gets the help that they need. This is completely unjust and immoral, and it has really significant costs for individuals, for families, for communities and for the country.

SHAPIRO: She says beyond eviction bans, the solution must be broad to help renters find homes, stay in them and give tenants a better chance at fighting evictions.

YENTEL: We need to have permanent emergency rental assistance in place to help families address an unexpected financial crisis and avoid the spiraling down into poverty that results. We need renters rights like right to counsel and just cause eviction, expunging eviction records and more.

KELLY: Our thanks to Devonne Moise, Takenya Lindsey and Brooke Parsons for sharing their stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF ST. VINCENT SONG, "NEW YORK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.