From a Public Health Emergency to a Housing Emergency: How COVID-19 is worsening the housing affordability challenge

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Habitat for Humanity International CEO Jonathan Reckford discusses the economic ripple effect COVID-19 has on the housing market.

With each passing day, we all find ourselves trying to adapt to the measures required to combat the spread of COVID-19. In countries and cultures around the world, “stay at home” is the message of the moment. It’s the right thing to do and if we are able to flatten the curve, we know that we will have saved countless lives together. At Habitat for Humanity, we also know that there are many families for whom this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. The uncertainty so many of us feel today has been felt by these families for a lifetime—if not generations.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency. The longer it goes on, the more it also becomes a housing emergency. In any crisis, it is always those with the least who are harmed the most. As we approach the end of the month, millions of families who have lost income will soon face the impossible decision of making rent or keeping food on the table. Our nation’s leaders are taking extraordinary action to protect the economy and our nation’s businesses and employees, but Washington has more work to do.

The White House and Congress must prioritise support for low-income families, as well as come to the aid of nonprofit organisations, like Habitat, that will play a key role in recovery efforts for the entire country. Congress’s support for these organisations will now help put us in a position to be ready to help our communities build back from this pandemic, now and in the future.

The work Congress is doing—including providing eviction and foreclosure prevention, as well as some housing and rental payment assistance and housing assistance—is much needed, but it can’t be where we stop. We are staring at a very real crisis and need both long-term housing investment and immediate housing relief. We won’t get there without a strategic, multifaceted approach. Civil society, financiers, builders, mayors and the federal government must all come together to meaningfully increase the housing supply. It is going to take all of us working together in the public, private and nonprofit sectors to ensure that everyone has access to a safe, decent and affordable home.

Where for many “shelter in place” means figuring out logistics and adjusting mindsets, for others it only exacerbates the conditions with which they have struggled for so long. Homes that are already overcrowded because the only way to afford rent or save up money is for extended family to stay together in a too-small space. Houses that are not healthy because of leaks or mold. Homes without easy access to constant water supply. Spaces that shelter, but only just.

When these are the choices you face, you can’t win. As the economic shock from this crisis ripples out, families who were already struggling will be hardest hit. They always are when disaster strikes.

These are the families with whom Habitat partners. They are going to need our hand up now more than ever. And now more than ever, our work, much like flattening the curve, will require all of us. Together, we can help these families, these communities—our neighbours—build their lives back.

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Housing Income Inequality

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Jonathan Reckford

Chief Executive Officer , Habitat for Humanity International


Now more than ever, we have to redouble the 2030 Agenda to meet the 17 SDGs. We have human capital SDGs worldwide, where we will all be a grain of sand to achieve it.