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Poll: As costs rise, Black and Hispanic renters struggle the most

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A majority of Americans say a lack of affordable housing is a serious problem where they live. And as prices keep rising, Black and Hispanic renters are struggling the most, including with the threat of eviction. Those are some of the findings in a new poll by NPR and Harvard University. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Even before she lost her job this past spring, things were tight for Nikki Cox. She works in customer service in North Carolina and had been making $20 an hour. Half her income went to rent.

NIKKI COX: Normally, if I did have something left over, it might be about a hundred, maybe, and that would buy my groceries and my necessities.

LUDDEN: Cox is among a majority of Black and Latino households who say they don't have enough savings to cover one month of expenses. That's according to the survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It left Cox in trouble when her company lost business and her hours were cut. She switched to a temp job, but that only paid $15 an hour, a huge drop in income. Then in May, she got COVID. She was out of work for three weeks, unpaid. At one point, Cox relied on customer points at convenience stores to get free dinners. Her nephew also helped.

COX: If he knew that I didn't have anything, he would send me, like, $10, $15. But, I mean, $10 or $15 in groceries doesn't last because you really can't get anything.

LUDDEN: Her landlord was understanding but eventually set a deadline.

COX: She said, if you can't get me at least $1,600, I'm going to have to go ahead and start the eviction process.

LUDDEN: The new poll finds eviction rates are basically back to pre-pandemic levels, and many more people say they've faced the threat of eviction. Both rates are highest for Black households, which have lower income and less wealth than white ones. Peter Hepburn of Princeton University's Eviction Lab says, on one hand, it's good that racial disparity didn't get worse, but it's also disappointing it didn't shrink, given all the emergency help.

PETER HEPBURN: A lot has changed in the last two-plus years, right? And there was the real possibility that some of those dynamics would have shifted. And that, really, you know, time and again, every time we've looked at the numbers, has not been the case.

LUDDEN: He says one reason is that state pandemic policies around evictions were wildly uneven.

HEPBURN: Where you lived had a really profound impact on how well you were protected from eviction. That was true well before the pandemic, and that divide seems to be getting wider.

LUDDEN: Since her eviction threat, Cox has had good news. She found a local nonprofit to help with rent and a new job at her old pay. So she's grateful she can stay put. She had applied for housing subsidies a few years ago but never heard back. They are chronically underfunded. Only 1 in 4 who qualify get them. Now skyrocketing rent and home prices are making it even harder to use them. In Lexington, Ky., Davita Gatewood was doing fine paying her share of the rent, but then her landlord said he would not renew the lease.

DAVITA GATEWOOD: He wants to renovate and sell the property, which is happening to a lot of people right now - just landlords wanting to go on and take advantage of the housing market. But the problem is we have nowhere to go.

LUDDEN: Gatewood is a single mother of six. After the lease wasn't renewed, her section 8 payments stopped. She's been fighting eviction while looking for another place for seven months. Prices are hundreds of dollars a month higher. The market's so tight places are snapped up fast, plus...

GATEWOOD: You think you found something, and then at the bottom of it, it says in bold, no section 8. So that's extremely discouraging.

LUDDEN: The country has a massive shortage of affordable housing. The Biden administration is encouraging communities to build more - and more densely - to help bring down rents. But that's not enough, says Tara Raghuveer, a tenant rights advocate with People's Action.

TARA RAGHUVEER: At best, a supply-side intervention is going to build housing that shows up in our communities in a couple of years. That doesn't do anything for the millions of tenants who can't afford rent next month.

LUDDEN: Wherever there's federal funding for housing, she's pushing the administration to make it harder to evict people without cause and harder to raise rents beyond inflation to prices more and more people simply can't pay.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.