As the immediate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic began to wane in 2021, the Philadelphia Fed’s focus turned to fostering an equitable recovery. The disparate impacts on renter households were a particular focus. More than one-third of 33.5 million renter households were hit by job losses stemming from the pandemic, disproportionately affecting those headed by women and people of color.
Building on work they started early in the pandemic, Davin Reed, community development economic advisor in the Community Development and Regional Outreach (CDRO) Department, and Eileen Divringi, community development research specialist in CDRO, produced several updates in 2021 on the potential impact to those renter households affected by COVID-19-related job losses.
Their analysis, issued in March and again at the end of July as the nationwide eviction moratorium expired, estimated that 2 million of those households would owe more than $15 billion in rent and utility payments and showed state-by-state breakdowns. The updates drew interest from government officials around the country, at both the state and federal levels, who sought out Divringi and Reed for their analysis of the situation.
“When they talked to us, we were always careful to say, ‘This is a ballpark number — this isn’t to say how much rental debt relief you should budget for these programs,’” Reed said. “We were just trying to help them get some perspective on the scope of this problem and whether what they were doing was sufficient.”
Moreover, Reed and Divringi were able to provide context and clarity around their research — what they were measuring, the questions they were answering, the population they were considering — which was valuable in talking about their research with government officials.
“When they were trying to figure out policy, that clarity helped a lot,” Reed noted. “People appreciated that we were taking a clear, objective approach to things.”
In addition to their rental debt updates, the CDRO pair collaborated with Tom Akana, advisor and research fellow in the Consumer Finance Institute (CFI), on a look at what renters were going through and what resources renters were seeking as the pandemic’s effects continued to ripple through the economy.
Drawing on data from the CFI’s COVID-19 Survey of Consumers, the report dug in beyond the amount of rental debt and considered elements from assistance programs to eviction worries to ways in which people were trying to help afford their monthly rent.
“We were able to leverage that partnership and produce something we think really did have interesting insights for people who were working on rental affordability or eviction prevention,” Divringi said.
Reed said producing that piece was possible because of the tight connections within the Bank, making resources available across departments.
“It’s a pure win for us — it’s so easy to talk with other people,” he shared.
From Research to Real-World Applications
And as Divringi, Reed, Akana, and others produced their research through the course of the year, colleagues like Jimmy Gastner, a community engagement associate in CDRO, worked to ensure it got to a wider audience — and in front of the policymakers and decision-makers in a position to effect change in response.
“Through presenting that research, we’re able to help them direct their outreach to residents we both seek to serve,” Gastner said. “We have the opportunity to be a resource for those organizations, helping to guide them at a much higher level as they engage directly with vulnerable renters across the Third District.”
In New Jersey, for instance, the Philadelphia Fed’s research on rental debt at a local level led to some surprises among the audience. Notably, counties that hadn’t seen an uptick in applications for relief programs were nonetheless areas of potential concern, given what the data pointed to in terms of debt.
Moments like that — and similarly, those that have informed advocacy efforts or helped back grant applications — illustrate the impact that the Fed and Fed research can have, Gastner noted.
“For us, those are huge wins,” he said.
Outreach isn’t only about bringing the Philadelphia Fed’s work to the world, however — Gastner was one of a team that worked on the System’s Community Development Research Seminar Series, which focused on supporting an inclusive recovery.
Those sessions, cohosted with the Atlanta Fed, brought together experts from around the country on several topics, including a session on housing security for vulnerable renters. Gastner emphasized the need to differentiate the series from similar events around the topics of renters and housing security, and he pointed to the Fed’s ability to consider long-term solutions and its convening power as a key piece in drawing the event’s slate of experts.
“As the Fed, we’re able to be that neutral voice without an agenda — we’re not trying to sell you anything, we’re not trying to force you to do anything, we’re here as a resource,” he said. “That’s part of the value we can bring.”
Researchers at the event considered emergency rental assistance programs as well as the prospects for universal rental housing vouchers, with several noting that, despite occurring in the context of the pandemic, the problems both predate and will outlast COVID-19.
“The lesson for me of this experience is that we shouldn’t have to ramp up these entirely new emergency systems when something really catastrophic happens because something really catastrophic is happening all the time,” said University of South Florida Associate Professor Elizabeth Strom.
And Giselle Routhier, a postdoctoral fellow at Health x Housing Lab at NYU Langone Health, pointed to the connection between keeping people housed and successfully battling COVID-19, as well as the larger implications.
“This pandemic has provided a lesson for how intertwined housing stability is with your ability to maintain your health and the ability to maintain our public health as a society overall,” she said. “[We] have an opportunity to expand on policies that have worked during the pandemic … at all levels of government.”
Echoing the sentiments of Strom and Routhier, the Fed’s Reed and Divringi said that while working toward an equitable recovery from the pandemic is a critical short-term goal, in the longer term, it becomes a matter of being better prepared — and ensuring policymakers aren’t fighting the same fights the next time.
“Having a bit of breathing room from the crisis has let us take a step back and take a look more at the broader, systemic issues and ways that those can be addressed,” Divringi said. “We’re still seeing what happens when we peel back the layers we put in place to support people during the pandemic.”
- The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia or the Federal Reserve System.