Post From Expert Insights
Safe, affordable housing is essential to health – not just health of individuals, but of entire communities. Housing shapes the workforce, drives economic growth, and enables local culture to flourish. Since long before the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses and other major employers had a vested interest in ensuring that workers and their families were adequately and securely housed.
For the past few years, Evidence for Action, a national research funding program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Build Healthy Places Network have been working in partnership with the National League of Cities, PolicyLink, and the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation to highlight innovative housing solutions and draw attention to ways in which businesses, anchor institutions, and other major employers can leverage their collective impact to create housing solutions that benefit their workforces and communities. With racism increasingly recognized around the country as a fundamental driver of health inequities, the need is intensified for cross-sector solutions to address the triple threat of health, housing security, and employment, which has disproportionately impacted so many communities of color.
From February – March 2021, we spoke with leaders from community development, policy, city government, and business sectors, including the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. We wanted to learn how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted programming, policies, and priorities when it comes to housing issues, especially in small and midsized legacy cities. We additionally wanted to identify examples of how businesses, anchor institutions (e.g. healthcare providers, universities), and other employers in these cities are or could be engaged to support housing initiatives that can directly impact their employees or communities. The conversations surfaced themes that were top of mind for leaders across multiple sectors.
Moving from digital divide to digital equity
At the onset of the pandemic, many people suddenly became dependent on the internet to work remotely, attend school, access health providers and human services, and stay connected with others. This has widened disparities, as over 40 million people in the U.S. lack access to broadband internet and face barriers to engaging in these essential activities. Connection challenges arise from both insufficient infrastructure (homes are not connected to a network) and lack of reliable equipment (e.g. computers or tablets) within the home itself.
Digital equity thus emerged as a critical aspect of housing equity. Restructuring our systems post-pandemic presents an opportunity to address this gap.
Housing stability/rental assistance as health interventions
Covid-19 laid bare the tremendous consequences on public health of inadequate housing and increased the urgency for eviction prevention and emergency rental assistance to stabilize housing. Experts also noted the importance and scalability of resident services for keeping people connected to social services. Other solutions with long term promise include enabling mobile devices to apply for assistance and integrate services among providers.
Policies that go beyond the “quick fix”
Community developers urged caution on converting short-term, emergency solutions into broad stroke long-term policies. Many “band-aid” approaches were not considered suitable as permanent solutions without some modification. For example, asking landlords, particularly those that are low-income/low-resource themselves, to shoulder long-term costs of eviction moratoria is untenable. Emergency measures were, however, considered strong starting points to inform future practices; e.g., stimulus payments could inform future guaranteed income initiatives or rental assistance measures.
Data to drive decision making
Ultimately, the path forward to recovery must be data-driven. Often, lack of comprehensive, disaggregated data on housing and employment hinders efforts to track the drivers of inequities and evaluate whether policies or programs are working. While state data are available on eviction, employment, and wage policies, for example, lack of city or local data about pre-pandemic vacancy rates or employment trends makes it difficult to assess immediate needs in a rapidly shifting housing environment. Rigorous approaches to sampling, innovative methods of recruitment, and resources to expand quantitative and qualitative data collection are all needed to understand the impact of the pandemic on housing disparities and to target interventions accordingly.
Playbook for employers
As employers who depend on a healthy workforce, businesses and anchor institutions can and should play a part addressing these challenges. Some called for a “playbook” for the business sector, to help employers get an understanding of the community, its priorities and motivations, and strategies for contributing to housing solutions.
“There are a lot of anchor institutions who want to know how to get started – they don’t know who the possible partners are, don’t know how to ask questions because they’re speaking a different language. The more we start to merge discussions the better our conversations and initiatives would be.”
If such a “playbook” were to emerge from our conversations, it would include options such as:
Businesses, anchor institutions, and other major employers have the ability and incentive to support local housing solutions that benefit their employees, customers, and communities. Digital equity, housing stability, and long-term sustainability all emerged as important themes to prioritize. Opportunities abound for employers to lend their financial support and influence to advance housing solutions, and meaningful community engagement and cross-sector collaboration will help ensure long-term success.
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