Alex Dahlem ’20
As our society begins to learn lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is unequivocally clear: non-white Americans have succumbed to the disease at much higher rates than white Americans. A late April analysis by the APM research lab found that black Americans are dying at 2.7 times the rate of white Americans. In some states, like Michigan and South Carolina, the racial gap in percentage share of deaths is more than 30 points.
Despite our relative success in social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19, Connecticut has not escaped this deep-seeded inequality. Black people make up 12% of the state’s population and 18% of those who have contracted COVID-19, a rate two times greater than white residents of the state. Hispanic people make up 16.5% of the state’s population and 24% of those who have tested positive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the most prevalent structural characteristics contributing to racial discrepancies in affliction rates are the density of cities and the general economic struggles experienced by those living in populated urban areas as opposed to peripheral suburbs. Humans living in smaller apartment units that are close together are unable to socially distance themselves in the way that people living in comfortable suburban homes are able to, thus making them more susceptible to acquiring COVID-19.
When it comes to spatial segregation based on racial and economic differences, Connecticut is one of the most problematic states in the country. Furthermore, these divisions fall along urban versus suburban boundaries in every region of the state–a frightening reality considering we are fighting a virus that thrives on social interaction and close quarters. A more veiled yet equally disgusting fact is that federal and state housing policies (and sometimes the lack thereof) have robbed economically less fortunate residents from the choice to live where they would like to live. Extremely poor residents of the state (who are unfortunately oftentimes racial minorities) have been given one option when it comes to residency: dense urban centers. This government directed confinement has rendered these residents statistically more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
What is even more frightening than these statistical trends, however, is the unwillingness of federal and state politicians to take meaningful steps at addressing the root causes of spatially-driven inequality. Suburban domination in both population and political power has allowed so many of the state’s residents to simply look away from the ever-widening inequality between our neighborhoods and towns. More than ever, Connecticut seems to be living up to its moniker as the “land of steady habits.”
As we begin to repair the massive fallout from the initial wave of COVID-19, we must remember that moments like this present an incredible opportunity to amend the most difficult underlying problems afflicting our world, including housing inequality. Providing more affordable housing opportunities for our most vulnerable residents will ensure that the burden of future public health crises does not fall solely on those who are already struggling with so much in their lives.
One place to start is with the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8. This is the most robust federal housing voucher program in the country and allows low-income residents and families the opportunity to rent housing on the private market for around 30% of their monthly income. In Connecticut, however, recipients of these vouchers are hindered by federal restraints on the types of housing that are available under the program.
The parameters of the program are set when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) decides the Fair Market Rent (FMR) rates for Metropolitan Statistical Areas throughout the country. This rate, which has been capped at the 40th percentile of “standard” rents in the region, limits participants in Connecticut due to the stark segregation (and therefore major differences in rental rates) within the state’s metropolitan regions.
However, HUD has the authority to set FMR boundaries at a more localized level (a process called Small Area FMR), which expands participant access to higher rent communities by calculating “standard” rents by zip code instead of the metropolitan area as a whole. Small Area FMR usage was selectively expanded at the very end of the Obama administration and actually included the Hartford region. Unsurprisingly, these regulations have been rolled back under the Trump administration, and their initial impact has been questioned due to the administrative autonomy that is given to local housing authorities and the community segregation that still persists.
If Joe Biden wins the presidency in November, he should increase the power of HUD by further expanding Small Area FMR usage and requiring that local housing authorities in the most segregated regions of the country educate their voucher recipients about the full scope of housing options. Furthermore, HUD should develop a supplementary fund backed up by regulations that covers the extra rental costs for Section 8 families who want to live in units that are valued above the FMR rate. Better yet, funding should be provided to extremely segregated metropolitan areas first. Expansion of federal influence will make the Section 8 program far more effective.
Local policy changes must be undertaken as well in order to truly make a difference. Connecticut’s communities are segregated at the local level, meaning that reconstituting the ability of someone to choose where they want to live is much more structurally challenging than simply shifting the amount of federal funds received by the state. Packing nearly all of the state’s affordable housing into cities only exacerbates the cycle of poverty that exists in those cities. This is doubly true in a state where property tax revenue determines the quality of so many vital services. It is reprehensible that our state’s politicians sit idly by without daring to address this issue. We need to enact legislation that challenges the status quo of predestined poverty and ensures that the most vulnerable in our society will no longer have to bear the brunt of unpredictable crises.
By its very nature, the COVID-19 crisis is uncovering deep structural flaws that exist in our society. High up on the list of those flaws is housing inequality, which has manifested itself in the high rates of COVID-19 infection amongst poorer and non-white populations living in cities. Now is a great time for federal and state governments alike to take bold action and attack the roots of modern segregation. As we can see by looking at our communities right here in Connecticut, there is a lot of work to be done.