Having a stable and safe home has never been more critical to the health of our residents and communities. However, California faced affordability and homelessness challenges long before Covid-19 emerged. While the pandemic did not create our housing conditions, it is exposing, and exacerbating, the structural inequalities that already existed. As we prepare once again to receive state and federal recovery funds, we need to get our response right.
As affordable housing advocates and practitioners, we must take every appropriate measure to ensure that no person or family gets left behind, especially our communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. This includes being proactive and creative in how we respond to the long-term economic and health impacts of this recession. Local successes in affordable housing preservation provide a roadmap forward for how we can best leverage emergency funds.
As missed rent and mortgage payments mount, some are already predicting a significant rise in home foreclosures, as well as a “potential bonanza” in sales of multifamily rentals. While we have been sheltering in place and working tirelessly to support the health of our communities, opportunistic private equity firms are raising funds to the tune of $1.5 trillion globally, ready for a shopping spree when property owners are pressed to sell homes and apartment buildings.
If this sounds familiar, it should. While the current crisis has different origins than the crash of 2008, both crises illustrate the shortcomings of our housing system and the vulnerability faced by hundreds of thousands of lower-income homeowners and renters across the state.
During the “Great Recession” of 2008, the federal government rolled out several programs aimed at stemming the tide of foreclosures sweeping across the country. Despite some successes, these interventions were piecemeal, not focused on those with the most need. The result? Millions of foreclosures, mass displacement, and a widening of the racial wealth gap, particularly in California.
This time we need to lay the groundwork for a strong, community-focused recovery response. Fortunately, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Over the last several years, cities and counties have developed programs to buy and stabilize existing properties where tenants are at risk of displacement — what’s most needed now is to direct recovery funds to efforts happening locally.
As Enterprise Community Partners’ recent report illustrates, local housing departments and community-based organizations in the Bay Area — like San Francisco’s Mission Economic Development Agency, Oakland Community Land Trust, East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation and others — have successfully demonstrated models to purchase and renovate occupied properties, ensuring permanent affordability for existing residents. In Southern California, organizations like TRUST South LA, East LA Community Corporation and Restore Neighborhoods LA are also creating models to preserve housing affordable to low-income tenants.
Scaling this work to meet the needs of our communities will require:
1. Funding. We will need to marshal enough federal, state, and philanthropic resources to respond effectively and quickly to the coming changes in the real estate market. That means carving out sufficient capital to buy, renovate, and maintain the affordability of properties as they become available.
2. Building Capacity. We need to invest in the capacity of our community-based organizations to execute this work. Performing resident outreach, assessing properties, overseeing construction, and managing operations requires a skilled, diverse, and well-supported workforce. Philanthropic and public grants will be needed to hire new staff, provide necessary training, and create more efficient systems.
3. Statewide Right of First Offer Policy. We must ensure tenants and nonprofit organizations have a fair chance to purchase at-risk residential buildings before they are lost to speculative investors. A statewide right of first offer policy will give these stakeholders an opportunity to act before a property hits the market. While cities and counties may develop their own variations, such as San Francisco’s Community Opportunity to Purchase Act, a statewide policy would provide a foundation and clear guidance for local jurisdictions.
The pandemic is showing us more than ever that housing is a critical part of our public health and economic infrastructure. We have seen our state and local leaders recognize this through eviction moratoria, mortgage relief, and other critical short-term measures that will keep people housed today. But the long-term choices will be just as critical, especially for communities of color that are bearing the brunt of both the health and displacement impacts. We have the opportunity to not only survive this crisis, but emerge with a more equitable system for all our communities.
Heather Hood is vice president and Northern California market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit organization delivering tools for the affordable housing industry. Peter Cohen is co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, a San Francisco-based affordable housing coalition and advocacy group. Lisa Hershey is Executive Director of Housing California, a statewide affordable housing and homelessness advocacy organization.