COVID-19 has made Chicago’s affordable housing crisis worse, and the feds must step in

Even before the pandemic, 63 percent of African American renters and 56 percent of Latino renters in Chicago were cost-burdened,

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Rental apartments in South Shore.

Rental apartments in South Shore.

Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

COVID-19 has rocked the city’s housing market. Job loss is leading many of our friends and neighbors to miss rent, which in turn makes the buildings they call home vulnerable to foreclosure when landlords are unable to pay their own expenses. 

The numbers are stark. Affordable housing providers in Chicago recently surveyed by the Department of Housing reported decreases in rent collection as high as 61 percent over the last few weeks. It is the same sad story across the country. The National Multifamily Housing Council, a multifamily apartment building industry group, polled its membership and found a 60% increase in nonpayment through April 12 compared to the same period a year ago. 

Opinion bug


Even before the crisis, 63 percent of African American renters and 56 percent of Latino renters in Chicago were cost-burdened, as compared to 42 percent of white renters. Let’s face it: Long before the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed, Chicago was a city with profound racial and economic segregation and insufficient affordable housing. 

COVID-19 is not creating inequities, it is simply reflecting those we already had.

The road to recovery has to involve us supporting each other as never before. If you are one of the fortunate who has not lost income during this time, one of the best ways to support those who have is to pay your rent.

Landlords have a better shot at being flexible with those who cannot pay if those who can, do. A wave of evictions or foreclosures is not in anyone’s interest. 

The city is doing all that it can to address the crisis. Before March ended, the housing department made 2,000 grants for housing assistance available and received 83,000 applications in just five days. (Donate to the next round at; under Location Preference, select Chicago.)

Last week, we introduced new grants to our affordable housing landlords to make up for rental shortfalls and remove red tape to refinance city loans in weeks instead of months. The grants should greatly help stabilize more than 3,400 units of affordable housing, keeping thousands of men, women and children safe and secure in their homes.

As the mayor says, we are all in this together. But the “all” must include the federal government, too.

The federal CARES Act provided a strong start for many issues, but only a sliver was dedicated to housing. To meet the scale of the crisis, we simply need more federal resources to keep low- and moderate-income Chicagoans housed. We’re talking $100 billion nationally for direct rental assistance alone, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

Here’s what else Chicago’s renters and owners need from Washington’s next COVID-19 relief package:

  • Emergency rental assistance and long-term sustained support for programs that produce and preserve affordable housing. Short-term direct rental assistance would meet the needs of tenants who don’t already have a subsidy like a Housing Choice Voucher and can help landlords to stay afloat. 
  • Funding for local governments that can backfill revenue losses.  This will allow us to better resource response efforts such as our Housing Assistance Fund and Emergency Relief for Affordable Multifamily Properties Program.
  • Relief for city-supported affordable housing developments. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program is by far the largest program the city has to create and preserve new affordable rental homes. It is crucial during this unprecedented crisis that LIHTC buildings in the pipeline receive extensions on key deadlines to ensure this program continues serving Chicago’s low-income renters. 

Those are some of the many things we need from the federal government. These precious resources, however, must be dispersed in a manner that accounts for COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on black and brown communities.

History tells us to expect an inequitable impact: During the housing crisis that began in 2008, black and Latino households were nearly 50 percent more likely to face foreclosure than white households, and the racial wealth gap widened. Just as we’ve seen with disproportionate levels of COVID-19 infection and death among black people, we are concerned about and working to solve for the housing impacts of the virus on communities of color. 

Our housing solutions must and will address the needs of both tenants and landlords. We are committed to avoiding both widespread evictions and foreclosures. We know that by providing or maintaining stable, affordable housing, we are investing in the people who live there, who by having a quality, affordable place to call home, can be freed up to focus on the other parts of their lives that matter: Family, work, school and, of course, health. 

Marisa Novara is Chicago’s housing commissioner.

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