Washington DC, US
Thomson Reuters Foundation

About five million Americans lose their homes every year due to eviction or foreclosure, researchers said on Wednesday, urging policymakers to use their new county-specific data on housing loss to target coronavirus aid more effectively.  

The research by New America, a thinktank, stitches together county-level eviction and mortgage foreclosure data for the first time to create a National Housing Loss Index, comparing 2,200 US counties for which data was available.

US housing protests

A demonstrator poses for a picture while protesting with others outside an apartment complex to stop the alleged eviction of one of the tenants in Mount Rainier, Maryland, US, on 10th August. PICTURE: Reuters/Leah Millis

As US housing campaigners warn of a possible surge in evictions and foreclosures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, report co-author Yuliya Panfil said the index helped highlight which were likely to be the worst-hit areas. 

"Because the same communities tend to be impacted over and over, by looking at where housing loss has been the most acute, we could help predict where COVID-related instability is going to happen," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The report said the pandemic could exacerbate higher rates of housing loss in mainly non-white areas dominated by renters where residents often lack health insurance. The cost of dealing with a medical emergency is a major cause of losing housing. 

At the same time, people forced to leave their homes during the outbreak could face a greater risk of catching the virus by moving in with friends and family, according to the report. 

"In a context where social distancing is important, we see housing loss as even more of a trigger for increased infections," said Panfil, who directs New America's Future of Property Rights program. 

States with the highest rates of eviction and foreclosure between 2014 and 2018 - including Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina - have also reported a spike in COVID-19 cases in recent months.

The United States, which has the world's highest number of confirmed cases of the respiratory disease, recently announced a temporary moratorium on evictions through December.

But advocacy groups such as the National Low Income Housing Coalition have said the measure does not include aid to help tenants already in arrears. The NLIHC has warned that up to 40 million people could face eviction by year-end.

Data on evictions and foreclosures is extremely patchy at a national and county level, Panfil said, meaning policymakers have little guidance about which residents are most at risk of losing their home. 

Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University, said in an email the new index was a "groundbreaking tool" that could help policymakers channel resources to areas already prone to housing loss that were now at higher risk due to COVID-19. 

In Tempe, Arizona, local officials who were given early access to the findings are using them to "direct outreach toward neighbourhoods and residents facing eviction and housing insecurity," city councillor Lauren Kuby said in an email. 

Tempe is in one of three counties where the New America researchers drilled down into housing loss patterns by smaller-scale census tracts.

"[We're] discussing how best to use this knowledge as we face an expected tsunami of housing loss in the coming months," she said, adding that the report had prompted lawmakers to demand pro bono legal support for tenants.