Housing security is the fundamental starting point for health and for racial equality. The pandemic didn’t create a housing crisis. COVID-19 merely exposed the inadequacies of our system to provide housing access and security for all. Those weaknesses are exacerbated by the growing racial and economic inequities underlying the impacts of the pandemic. The most vulnerable among us are feeling the inequitable impact of the pandemic. Along with access to vaccines, health care and jobs, a COVID-19 recovery strategy must focus on housing access, security and stability — for many it is a matter of life or death.
Our mission as nonprofit housing providers and advocates is to make our communities stronger and more resilient. In the toughest times, we do the toughest work, on the front lines of keeping people housed. The work we do as nonprofits — and our direct relationships with communities across The City — has taught us that a focus on racial equity must be front and center.
The resources The City allocates now, as we begin the recovery from this historic crisis, must align with a collective vision for the future: a fairer, more just America. To get this right, everything we do over the coming year must take into account the issues that communities of color were facing long before the COVID-19 pandemic, including housing security.
Investment as solution
An effective recovery requires a proactive investment strategy, in funding, programs and political priorities. We need to invest in a more resilient future by increasing our efforts to take housing out of the speculative market and building more permanently affordable homes. Housing investment must focus on the full range of The City’s at-risk residents, from the unhoused to the workers who provide essential services, health, education and nonprofit workers who we all depend on.
The City needs a plan for counter-cyclical investments, doubling down during this recession to build resilience going forward. After all, the next recession, however induced, will come — and we can learn much from this current crisis to avoid a repeat of these impacts.
The alternative is austerity and belt-tightening — deepening housing insecurity and racial inequality. It is precisely the wrong time to reduce revenues or defer development fees that support these critical investments.
Housing preservation strategy
The response to COVID-19 must begin with stabilizing existing homes, and ensuring San Franciscans’ ability to stay in place. Housing security is fundamental to health. Tenants and homeowners of modest means often face instability in the ebb and flow of a private market housing system that is set up for putting residents at risk.
COVID-19 has disrupted the housing market and put many homes and apartments in financial distress, potentially creating another foreclosure and mass speculation crisis as we saw in the Great Recession in 2008. Tenant protection policies — rent and mortgage forgiveness and eviction moratoria — are a critical tool, but a housing recovery strategy needs more.
San Francisco’s successes in housing preservation — programs to buy and stabilize existing properties with residents at risk of displacement — provide a roadmap forward for how to best leverage recovery funds. The primary limiting factor to scaling up is the lack of dedicated city funding for permanent equity investment in these acquisitions. A recovery strategy would lead with identifying financially distressed residential buildings in default, in foreclosure risk or put onto the speculation market, and it would integrate capacity-building for the community-based housing providers to get these acquisitions in motion. Land trust models may also provide long-term stability for single-family homes before large swaths of our neighborhoods are once again bought up by investment firms.
Housing production strategy
Beyond stabilizing existing homes across The City, the economic fallout will also open up opportunities for increasing affordable housing production. Development “entitlements” — approved shovel-ready private housing projects — can be bought in partnership with nonprofit developers. Now is the time to “bank” potential sites across The City for future affordable housing development, especially in at-risk communities of color, prioritizing sites along neighborhood commercial corridors to support small business retention, and with community organizations in the lead.
As a new configuration of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is seated and a new federal administration takes office, in the midst of a third surge in the pandemic and a prolonged downturn, it is imperative that our city embark upon a recovery strategy that centers housing affordability and stability, particularly for at-risk communities. The choices our local leaders make now to help those most impacted to weather the pandemic and its housing impacts will set the course for the future of our communities.
Fernando Martí and Peter Cohen are co-directors for the San Francisco Council of Community Housing Organizations, a coalition of 23 community-based affordable housing developers and housing justice advocates.