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Craig Richardson and Tim Robustelli: Forsyth needs long-term solutions to housing loss

Craig Richardson and Tim Robustelli: Forsyth needs long-term solutions to housing loss

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Last week, protesters in Winston-Salem called for reinstatement of North Carolina’s eviction moratorium amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Housing Justice Now, a local advocacy group, has recorded a rapid increase in eviction filings since the original state moratorium expired on June 20, with over 500 cases in both July and August.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that local tenants can’t pay rent, as North Carolina has been hard hit economically by COVID-19. A weekly survey conducted by the Census Bureau found that 23% of households statewide were housing insecure in late July, meaning they either missed their rent or mortgage payment the previous month or believed they wouldn’t be able to pay the next month. Further, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Forsyth County had an unemployment rate of 9.3% in July, over double the rate from July 2019.

Taken together, it’s clear that this snapshot doesn't bode well for the county in coming months.

But while the pandemic has shone a light on the scope of potential housing loss, the challenge has been in Forsyth County all along. The county experienced a housing loss rate 30% higher than the national average between 2014 and 2016. This level of forced displacement, which includes evictions and mortgage foreclosures, ranks higher than 90% of U.S. counties.

New research from New America, a D.C. think tank, can help guide local policymakers in navigating both the coming tsunami of property loss and persistent housing insecurity. Written in partnership with the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility at Winston-Salem State University, Wake Forest University and the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at the Wake Forest University School of Law, the report shows historic (2014-2018) trends in Forsyth County home loss, allowing local leaders to better predict where pandemic-related displacement might occur, and also to develop long-term solutions.

As such, the study indicates that highest rates of home loss are primarily in East Winston, and non-white households are most impacted. During the five-year study period, 9.6% of residents in primarily minority census tracts east of U.S. 52 lost their homes.

Underlying these tremendous disparities is the fragility of the East Winston economy, which has census tracts with average annual family incomes as low as $14,000. And property values in East Winston keep dropping. Take a four-mile square in the northeast quadrant, bounded by Business 40 and Route 52: In that area, the majority of the land lost between 5 to 20% of its value between 2013 and 2017, according to MapForsyth. Directly west of U.S. 52, land prices have increased between 5% and more than 30% during the same time.

The precipitous drop in property values on the east side is, in part, a reflection of the lack of government, private and nonprofit investment, leading to wilting home prices. With landlords seeing no return on their investment, the quality of rental housing stock decreases. At the same time, renters have few opportunities to plug into the thriving economic network on the west side, particularly if they don’t have a car. This has led to hundreds of foreclosures and many badly-maintained rental properties in East Winston, creating a downward spiral in neighborhood wealth and economic opportunities.

New policies directly responding to the pandemic, such as the CDC’s recent moratorium on most evictions nationwide until 2021, will keep at-risk families housed short-term. But it’s also clear that Forsyth County faced substantial housing challenges before this year. These systemic inequities will likely persist well after the current crisis recedes.

Both state and local leaders must adopt long-term policies to proactively prevent housing loss, such as creating an economic environment that stimulates wage growth in East Winston. Policymakers should improve social benefits in order to reduce pressure on household budgets, or work with local nonprofits to help fill the gap. Forsyth County should also expand affordable housing options through establishment of a local housing trust fund and bolstering its existing homeownership program. And there must be increased parity between landlords and tenants, through stronger tenants’ rights and legal representation for renters in eviction court.

There needs to be a concerted effort by our local government to transform low-income neighborhoods into areas of high opportunity as well, linked by reliable public transit to jobs, grocery stores and other amenities. Wealth-building, through home ownership and other investing, can be done without displacing existing residents if they too have a chance to climb the economic ladder like wealthier citizens on the west side of town.

The COVID-19 pandemic still carries the potential for unprecedented housing loss in 2021, and perhaps beyond. Yet the issue of forced displacement has been long present in Forsyth County. While short-term policies can continue to help weather the storm, we need long-term solutions to keep at-risk households in their homes well into the future.

Craig Richardson is CSEM’s founding director. Tim Robustelli is a policy analyst for the Future of Property Rights Program at New America.

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