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Weathering the Storm of Housing Instability During the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 blog series

In February 2021, ICS was pleased to co-host a webinar on housing challenges with Root & Rebound, a Greenville-based organization whose mission is “to restore power and resources to the families and communities most harmed by mass incarceration.” (Slides and the recording are available here.) This session focused on the interplay of childhood housing insecurity and family involvement with the criminal justice and child welfare systems. The conversation centered heavily on the experience of families and children in Greenville and South Carolina broadly – challenges that have been building for years related to affordable housing access, but which have also been ratcheted to a new level due to the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis. 

In the early days of the crisis, as quick economic contraction was coupled with the immediate need to close schools, much of the concern centered around the needs of families to access stable internet for remote schooling within their homes, hotels, and shelters, while also helping them weather immediate loss of income. A year into this emergency, housing instability is still, unfortunately, a crucial issue impacting families and children. While schools have worked hard to close the “digital divide,” the prolonged nature of the health emergency and its economic impacts continue to destabilize housing, with households with children – and in particular, renters – significantly more likely to be impacted. 

In a recent Census Pulse Survey (an ongoing data collection deployed since the crisis began to track household trends), 10 percent of homeowners in South Carolina and 13 percent of renters reported they were not up-to-date on their most recent housing payments (as of February 17 – March 1). For reference, in the very first week of collection in April 2020, these rates were 13 percent for homeowners and 18 percent for renters. While homeowners falling behind on their housing payments is certainly of concern, there is a great urgency to the situation for renters, both because the rates have been higher for them throughout the crisis, and the removal from their homes is a faster process for renters than for owners. A December report estimates that Americans who are behind on rent, owe on average $5,850. 

Alarmingly, these numbers spiked sharply when we dove into subgroup analysis, as seen below: 

housing pandemic renters trends chart


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Week 25 Household Pulse Survey: February 17 – March 1. 
Calculations reflect South Carolina. Analysis does not include respondents who omitted a response to this question. A horizontal line has been added to indicate the overall state average of 13 percent of renters reporting they are behind on rent. 

Nearly one in four renter households with children report being behind on rent, a figure significantly higher than households without children. Rates are also very closely linked to a family’s recent economic situation, with 18 percent of those reporting a household member experienced employment loss as the reason they were behind on rent. There is also a degree of racial/ethnicity disparity as well, with Black renters most impacted, though these differences are not as extreme as are other demographics. 

Given our organizational focus, we are very concerned to see the much higher rates of housing costs arrears for families with children – and concerns continue into the future. When asked about their confidence level regarding next month’s payment, 32 percent of South Carolina respondents had “no or slight” confidence they could pay in full, compared to 30 percent nationwide. A jarring 54 percent of SC renters reported they believe it was very or somewhat likely they would be forced to leave their rental in the next two months due to eviction, compared to 48 percent nationwide. Households with children were more likely to report being concerned about the following month’s rent payment; however, about half of all renter households both with and without children were concerned about the potential for eviction in the next two months. This suggests a deep uncertainty among renters in the state regarding their economic futures in just the next 60 days, a reflection of the turbulence experienced in the last year. 


Housing instability and homelessness have significant impacts on the mental and physical well-being of children and families, as we outlined in a recent research brief, including maternal mental health; child physical health, including asthma; adult physical health, including forgoing medical needs; child academic achievement and ability to focus; and more. 

South Carolina residents in need of support for housing may be able to access options ranging from a halt on evictions to financial assistance – SC’s 211, a service of the United Way Association of SC, is a good place to start. More broadly, policymakers and service providers must also be aware of the wide-ranging impacts of housing instability. Rent and mortgage payments are not “just another bill” – they are an essential cost for families to maintain safety and stability during these chaotic times. Housing instability can lead to significant stress and sub-optimal living conditions for families of all ages and can be particularly impactful on young children – even those who do not consciously understand their family’s housing dilemma. Families may need additional social-emotional support to weather these challenges in addition to financial support. 

Megan Carolan

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