The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of middle-income households being able to find attainable housing, with front-line workers faring particularly badly, according to a new study from the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing.

For the occupational analysis section of its 2021 Home Attainability Index, the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing selected 12 occupations impacted by the COVID-19 crisis—including health care workers, front-line workers, and workers at risk of income disruption—and gauged their ability to afford the nation’s median housing prices across a range of housing types.

Of the occupations selected, only three—geriatric nurses, cardiac technicians, and long-haul delivery truck drivers—would be able to rent a two-bedroom apartment in more than half of the regions in the dataset. Only geriatric nurses could afford more than half of the regions’ median priced homes with a 10% or 3% down payment.

Nursing aides, home health aides, stock movers, janitors, retail salespersons, child care workers, security guards, and restaurant wait staff are unable to afford median priced homes in any of ULI’s tracked regions, whether with a 10% down payment or a 3% down payment. The hardest hit are restaurant wait staff, who make a median annual wage of $26,532 across all index regions, but can only afford a one-bedroom apartment in 12.15% of them.

The Attainability Index is designed to demonstrate the extent to which a housing market provides housing choices that are attainable to the regional workforce, with the intent of informing and supporting developers and municipalities in addressing affordability challenges. The index covers the 100 most populous metropolitan statistical areas, plus an additional 12 served by ULI District Councils, and incorporates 30 housing and equity-related metrics across five categories. These include overall affordability; homeownership attainability; rental attainability; neighborhood opportunity and access; and housing production.

In summary, the index found that the strongest burdens on middle-income households are in the most populous regions, but there is still a nationwide lack of attainable homes for critical workforce members. Segregation is also present across all market types in geography, both in terms of income and in terms of race.

“Patterns of housing insecurity and racial and socioeconomic inequality that existed prior to COVID-19 have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the associated economic downturn,” says Michael A. Spotts, author of the report and visiting research fellow with the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing. “We are staring in the face of a situation in which many of the people who were critical in getting the population at large through this crisis face years of economic uncertainty and hardship as the country recovers. The Home Attainability Index will help to shine a light on where the main issues are, enabling us to find potential solutions to creating a more equitable society.”

While the index does not assign scores by region, the report notes that Ogden-Clearfield, Utah, performed better than the dataset median for the most index metrics of home attainability than any other market. Out of the 50 most populous regions, San Antonio and Pittsburgh were the only two that performed above the median in at least two-thirds of index metrics.

In addition, the study examined the relationship between attainability and equity, since the benefits of living in a region with more attainable housing could be weakened if there are deep concentrations of poverty or other inequities. Among regions that are relatively affordable, the index highlights nine where that affordability may be offset by equity-related weakness: Toledo, Ohio; Cleveland; Birmingham, Alabama; Charlotte, North Carolina; St. Louis; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Louisville, Kentucky; and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Another nine metros—San Diego; Los Angeles; Riverside, California; Denver; Portland, Oregon; Stockton, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Las Vegas; and Seattle—perform poorly on affordability but comparatively well on equity measures.

Another metric, racial segregation, aims to highlight and account for a region’s racial and ethnic disparities as a result of “segregation, redlining, exclusionary zoning, and discriminatory practices in the real estate and finance industries.” (The metric does not control for the overall diversity of a region.) Out of all regions in the 2021 dataset, only three—Colorado Springs, Honolulu, and Las Vegas—met the standard for “low” levels of racial segregation.

Included with the index is a Housing, Health and COVID-19 Crisis policy brief, which offers the ULI's recommendations for housing policies that can support economically disadvantaged workers. They include: eviction protections for the duration of the pandemic, ongoing rental assistance for very low-income households, funding to ease the burden of deferred rent and mortgage payments on providers, and capital to maintain lower-income housing stock.