Fair Housing and Renters During a Pandemic

By Sian Leach
April 15, 2020

When disaster hits, an increase in discrimination often follows. This pandemic is on a different scale and covers a much larger geographic area than most disasters, but we can assume that the pattern of discrimination that follows will be similar. The economic impact of COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on renters, and renters will be the ones who will likely feel the greatest impact from a rise in discriminatory practices.

In response to this crisis, Congress passed the CARES Act to provide emergency relief across various fields. In the first COVID-19 relief package, relief for homeowners with federally backed mortgages was an important piece. For homeowners with federally backed mortgages, the CARES Act provides both a foreclosure moratorium and a 6-month payment forbearance.[1] Nationally, the homeownership rate is 65.1%.[2] However, in areas where renters outnumber homeowners, such as D.C., this legislation will not go as far.

Renters will be disproportionately impacted by the economic downturn connected to COVID-19.[3] The initial CARES Act does provide some provisions for rental assistance and places a moratorium on evictions for those living in federally subsidized housing. According to the Urban Institute, only 28.1% of rental units are covered by these protections in the CARES Act.[4] These protections only address the needs of some renters and leaves many renters at risk.

The needs of renters cannot be underestimated. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), “roughly 13%, or more than 570,000, of all working-age extremely low-income renter households in the labor force work in retail jobs. Over 580,000 renter households with extremely low incomes work in restaurants and bars, and over 260,000 work in personal care positions. It was already difficult to make ends meet in many of these positions prior to the pandemic.”[5] With so many low-income renter households already struggling to make ends meet, the added impact of COVID-19 will disproportionately affect these households and could put many at risk of losing their housing.

In DC, renters make up 58% of households, which is about 1.5 times the national percentage of renter households.[6] Along with this high number of renters, we also see low-income households spending disproportionate amounts of their income on housing, transportation, and energy costs.[7] The breakdown in who are homeowners versus who are renters also works to highlight racial inequities. White households in DC have a homeownership rate of 63.7%, while black households have a homeownership rate of 43.5%.[8] This breakdown in who are homeowners and who are renters shows the implicit racial biases in the relief effort when the focus is on homeowners as opposed to renters.

The DC Council passed two emergency relief bills in the past month to extend the reach of COVID-19 relief for DC residents.[9] These bills include a rent-freeze for all apartments, not only in rent-controlled homes, and prohibits evictions and late fees during this period.[10] These relief efforts will help people maintain housing, as many individuals deal with wage cuts and job loss. However, these protections are limited and will likely lead to a large number of evictions when these moratoriums are lifted. We need more assistance programs, and specifically large-scale rental assistance programs, if we want to prevent housing loss due to COVID-19. It is important to see local governments stepping in to further the reach of COVID-19 relief efforts. However, there is still much work to be done.


[1] U.S. House Committee on Financial Services. Committee Releases Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About the CARES Act. April 1, 2020, https://financialservices.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=406472.

[2] U.S. Census Bureau. Quarterly Residential Vacancies and Homeownership, Fourth Quarter. January 30, 2020, https://www.census.gov/housing/hvs/files/currenthvspress.pdf

[3] Zonta, Michela. “Congress Must Act Now to Keep Renters in Their Homes During and After the Coronavirus Crisis.” Center for American Progress. April 9, 2020, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/news/2020/04/09/482888/congress-must-act-now-keep-renters-homes-coronavirus-crisis/

[4] Goodman, Laurie, et al. “The CARES Act Eviction Moratorium Covers All Federally Financed Rentals – That’s One in Four US Rental Units.” Urban Institute. April 2, 2020, https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/cares-act-eviction-moratorium-covers-all-federally-financed-rentals-thats-one-four-us-rental-units

[5] Aurand, Andrew, et al. “NLIHC Research Note: The Need for Emergency Rental Assistance During the COVID-19 and Economic Crisis.” National Low-Income Housing Coalition. April 3, 2020, https://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/Need-for-Rental-Assistance-During-the-COVID-19-and-Economic-Crisis.pdf

[6] Census Reporter. District of Columbia, DC. Retrieved from https://censusreporter.org/profiles/05000US11001-district-of-columbia-dc/.

[7] Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. America’s Rental Housing 2020. 2020, https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/Harvard_JCHS_Americas_Rental_Housing_2020.pdf.

[8] Goldchain, Michelle. “How discrepancies in homeownership rates by race persist in Washington, D.C.” Curbed DC. August 23, 2017, https://dc.curbed.com/2017/8/23/16189248/homeownership-race-dc-washington.

[9] Massimo, Rick. “DC Council passes COVID-19 relief bill with rent freeze, consumer protections.” WTOP. April 7, 2020, https://wtop.com/coronavirus/2020/04/dc-council-passes-covid-19-relief-bill-with-rent-freeze-consumer-protections/.

[10] Council of the District of Columbia. Council Unanimously Passes Emergency COVID-19 Response Bill. March 17, 2020, https://dccouncil.us/council-unanimously-passes-emergency-covid-19-response-bill/.


If you believe you may have experienced discrimination in housing, you can contact the Equal Rights Center. To report your experience, please call 202-234-3062 or email info@equalrightscenter.org.

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