2 Public opinion of housing

This chapter describes results from numerous public opinion polls in recent years which have asked questions about housing affordability and opportunity. These findings help make the case for increased and sustained actions to solve housing challenges in the Commonwealth.

2.1 Measuring how Virginians and Americans feel about housing

Public opinion polling in recent years has found broad agreement that housing affordability is a problem. This polling has also discovered robust support for policies and programs to address it. While the two most recent polls surveying only Virginians predate the COVID-19 outbreak, another two nationwide polls performed during the pandemic suggest increasing recognition of the need and support for more long-term government investment in affordable housing.

For instance, a national public opinion poll commissioned by the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign and conducted by Hart Research Associates in June 2020 found that 86 percent of respondents “agree that the pandemic has demonstrated that the government needs to invest more in affordable housing over the long term.”

In short, the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing economic crisis have revealed and exacerbated issues of housing affordability and stability that pervaded Virginia and the country long before 2020.

More than four in five Americans think that the COVID-19 pandemic showed the importance of public investments in affordable housing.12

This chapter is a synthesis and summary of the two Virginia-focused housing affordability polls: one commissioned by the Campaign for Housing and Civic Engagement (CHACE) and conducted in 2017 by the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University (CNU), and the other conducted in 2019 by the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). It concludes with results from more recent national polls to fill in what Virginians’ current attitudes about affordable housing and related issues might be since experiencing the pandemic and its economic fallout.

2.2 Public opinion on affordable housing in the Commonwealth

2.2.1 2017 CHACE poll

Respondents of the 2017 CHACE poll (509 registered Virginia voters surveyed) and the 2019 VCU poll (816 adults in Virginia surveyed) broadly agreed that housing affordability is an important issue and supported possible measures to address affordability and related issues.13

The CHACE survey—which offers a statewide view of public opinion and attitudes among registered voters—reported significant majority support for values affirming housing equity and programs:

  • More than three-quarters (79.4 percent) agree that having an adequate supply of housing options in their community is important to them.
  • Most respondents (82.1 percent) believe that people working in their community should be able to afford to live in their community.
  • More than three-quarters (78 percent) support the preservation of the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, its use specifically to address homelessness (80.3 percent), and its expansion to assist in the costs of aging-in-place modifications (87 percent).
  • The majority of those surveyed (84 percent) support the state’s use of incentives and financial resources to encourage Virginia utilities to increase their funding for energy efficiency programs for their customers.
  • An overwhelming majority (89 percent) support requiring Virginia utility companies to achieve greater energy savings for their customers.

Smaller majorities of respondents:

  • Supported paying a 50 cent surcharge on their monthly utility bill to fund the provision of financial support for weatherization programs for low-income residents,
  • Believed that affordability contributes to the economic success of their community,
  • Agreed that ending homelessness should be an important government priority,
  • Agreed that local and state governments should work to provide housing opportunities for families whose incomes are a barrier to quality housing, and
  • Indicated that they are more likely to support a candidate for political office who makes housing affordability a priority.

2.2.2 2019 VCU poll

The VCU poll collected and presented public perspectives about housing affordability at various scales and units of analysis.14 A key finding of this study is the dissonance between respondents’ perceptions of housing affordability in their own communities in Virginia versus their perceptions of housing affordability at a national level.

Overall, the poll found that:

  • While 78 percent of the Virginians surveyed identified housing affordability as a current problem in the United States, just 57 percent regarded it as a problem where they live, and only 33 percent believed it was a very serious local problem.
  • At the regional scale, 47 percent of respondents in the South Central region said it was a very serious problem where they live, followed by 41 percent of respondents in Northern Virginia.
  • On the other hand, substantial shares of respondents in the Northwest (55 percent), Tidewater region (51 percent), and West regions (40 percent) said affordability was not a problem in their respective areas.

Survey responses also aligned within racial groups:

  • 42 percent of non-white respondents reported that affordability is a very serious problem where they live compared to 28 percent of white respondents who said the same.

Educational attainment also influences perceptions of housing affordability:

  • 41 percent of college graduates see it as a very serious problem in their area, but just 29 percent of respondents with some college and 28 percent of those with a high school education or less share this view.

Party identification also divides public perception of affordability:

  • 57 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Independents agree that housing affordability is a very serious problem, compared to 31 percent of Republicans reporting the same.

Respondents’ sense of their own housing stability also contrasted according to race and income:

  • While 55 percent of white respondents reported feeling very stable in their current housing situation, only 32 percent of non-white respondents did as well.
  • Just 40 percent of respondents earning a family income of less than $50,000 reported feeling fairly stable and secure compared to 54 percent of those with incomes of $50,000 to $100,000.
  • The poll also found substantial disparities in housing cost burdens along racial and class lines across Virginia, which other research confirms. (See Chapter 30.)

The poll included questions specifically addressing homeownership affordability:

  • Of the 41 percent of the sample who rent or live with their parents or in some other arrangement, 70 percent said they aspire to own a home, 22 percent said that they do not, and 8 percent said that they do not know.
  • The main barriers to buying a home included limited options within their budget (22 percent), a poor credit history (18 percent), lack of down payment (15 percent), and existing debt (11 percent).

The results also illustrate the widely known racial gap in homeownership that persists across the country:

  • Two-thirds of white respondents owned their home, compared to 49 percent of non-white respondents.

Finally, the majority of respondents to this poll indicated their endorsement of changing rent and eviction policies to address problems of housing affordability and stability:

  • In particular, 75 percent of respondents supported changing landlord-tenant laws to increase the length of time that renters have to pay past-due rent to 14 days.15
  • 78 percent said they would support legislation making it easier for tenants to withhold rent from landlords who fail to make necessary repairs in a specified amount of time.

2.3 Public opinion on affordable housing across the nation

In the midst of worsening housing unaffordability and instability during the COVID-19 pandemic, national public opinion on policies to reverse the trend sustained or even gained strength across the political spectrum. A poll commissioned by Opportunity Starts at Home found that 63 percent of those surveyed agreed that housing affordability is a “serious problem” in the area where they live, an increase of 24 percentage points since 2016.16

These responses apply to immediate action to stem housing instability resulting from the pandemic (such as emergency rental assistance, more funding for homeless assistance programs to minimize crowding, and a uniform, nationwide eviction moratorium) as well as to longer-term solutions to these housing problems that the pandemic crisis exposed and exacerbated.

Over two-thirds of respondents said they wanted the government to “make major housing investments even if it means increasing the deficit.” However, only 49 percent of Republicans agreed with this view compared to 79 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Independents.

A December 2020 survey by Data for Progress—which polled 1,116 “likely voters” nationally—found substantial support for a public option for housing in addition to increased government support for affordable housing access and stability.17

When asked if they would be in favor of a “proposal where cities or counties build new, affordable housing that people can then rent from and which would compete with private housing options,” over 75 percent of Democratic voters said would be, while 64 percent of Independent/third-party voters and 37 percent of Republican voters agreed.

The Opportunity Starts at Home campaign also conducted the most recent national opinion poll on housing in June and July of 2021.18 That poll again found that Americans overwhelmingly support investments in affordable housing:

  • Three in four (74 percent) favor programs to expand the supply of homes affordable to low-income persons.
  • Four in five (82 percent) believe the government should increase efforts to end homelessness.
  • Nine in ten (92 percent) agree that “stable, affordable housing” is important to a person’s well-being.

Over half of low-income, Black, and Hispanic respondents to this poll said housing is one of the most important factors for well-being.