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Can the COVID-19 Crisis Unite the Housing Movement?

As the conversation turns toward longer-term recovery, how will the sometimes fractious housing movement respond?

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Over the last few years in California, a rift has grown in the affordable-housing movement, between YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) groups that favor a supply-driven approach to addressing the state’s lack of affordable housing and progressive groups that increasingly focus on policies like rent control and efforts to prevent the displacement of low-income communities of color. Their coalitions have bumped heads over the repeated efforts to pass a bill in the state legislature that would require cities to permit dense housing near jobs and transit stations. Little love is lost between them.

But as the scope of the coronavirus pandemic has come into view, the immediate concerns of both sides have shifted. When the progressive group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) launched a petition demanding that the state pause all evictions and utility shutoffs during the crisis, California YIMBY was one of the first groups to sign, says Matthew Lewis, the YIMBY group’s director of communications. In the hierarchy of needs that’s been highlighted by the crisis, it’s obvious what comes first, Lewis says.

“There’s people on the street: give them shelter. I don’t care what powers you need to invoke. That’s the basic principle,” Lewis says.

The pandemic has emphasized the challenges of housing insecurity across the country, and even groups of landlords and property owners are turning to the government to help vulnerable tenants stay housed. Within the sometimes fractious movement to address the country’s affordable-housing crisis, the acute crisis of the pandemic has tightened some ties between different groups, particularly around demands like stopping evictions and housing people who are experiencing homelessness. But as the immediate crisis response turns to plans for long-term economic recovery, will housing advocates of different stripes unify behind a single set of demands?

Don’t count on it. Already, they’re taking different approaches. Two of the country’s biggest grassroots progressive groups, the Center for Popular Democracy and People’s Action, are organizing around federal demands like the total suspension of rent and mortgage payments, while the National Low Income Housing Coalition is pushing for direct rental assistance to tenants (and, by extension, landlords). Other groups are looking to the long-term recovery to push for a green stimulus, including investments in energy-efficiency retrofits and new social housing. The California YIMBY group is looking to state action to produce emergency shelter, and still hoping for changes to land-use policy that it hopes will help developers provide needed supply during the economic recovery, Lewis says.

During the financial crisis of 2008, the official consensus on how to structure a stimulus came together quickly in the waning months of the year and the first few weeks of the Obama administration, says Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who works with the Homes Guarantee and Green Stimulus campaigns. The country is in that situation again now, he says, and advocates are hoping for a broader stimulus this time around — one that meets more progressive goals. Congress has passed one economic relief package, but the overall terms of a longer-term economic stimulus have yet to be determined.

“The core task right now, with all the uncertainty before us, is simply to win the cultural argument that green investment and justice-oriented investment is the best thing for the country and for workers and for communities,” Cohen says.

There are slight differences in approach even among progressive groups. There was a brief, loose campaign calling for a “rent strike,” but by the end of March, leading progressive groups were calling for the federal government to suspend rent and mortgage payments. The groups were leading different campaigns — People’s Action was using the hashtag #RentZero while CPD was saying #CancelRent and #CancelMortgages — but basically calling for the same policies. Both groups say their demands grow out of the needs expressed by people in their member groups around the country.

“I think that there was already movement towards alignment [between the two groups],” says Dianne Enriquez, director of campaigns for community dignity at the Center for Popular Democracy. “There was already clarity and unity in demands … This is an organic demand that is coming out of a very real and obvious need so we are in concert with other housing partners.”

Tara Raghuveer, an organizer of the Homes Guarantee campaign with People’s Action, says that the coronavirus crisis is strengthening ties between progressive housing groups, but also opening up the possibility of cooperation with people who weren’t previously allies. For example, says Raghuveer, who lives in Missouri and leads the group KC Tenants, she has not often thought about trying to work with her state’s two U.S. Senators, both Republicans, on housing issues. But the fact that the Congress just overwhelmingly passed a $2 trillion relief package, and is considering more stimulus measures, suggests that the political possibilities are more open at the moment than they have been in the recent past, she says.

“This is not a time when we can assume friends or enemies,” Raghuveer says. “This is a time, I think, of unprecedented urgency and empathy, and we need to channel that into both immediate relief but then also sowing the seeds for the long-term systemic change we want to see, which is obviously a homes guarantee.”

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has called for a broad package of rental assistance rather than suspension of rent and mortgage payments. Diane Yentel, the group’s executive director, says that approach would keep renters in their homes, but also help landlords, many of whom own only a small number of properties, to pay their own bills. Such landlords provide much of the “naturally occurring” affordable housing stock in the country, she says.

“Rental assistance both assures that we’re not saddling low-income renters with more debt and that we’re maintaining the affordable housing infrastructure throughout this crisis,” Yentel says.

Broadly speaking, Yentel says, the rapid destruction of the economy has put more and more people in precarious housing situations. Leaders who may have been familiar with data around the country’s housing shortages may now be experiencing the crisis on a more personal level, she says, and that “might change minds and attitudes about how we might repair some of these gaping holes in our social safety net.”

If nothing else, housing advocates say, the threats unveiled by the coronavirus pandemic add support to the arguments that they’ve been making for years — even when those arguments don’t perfectly align.

“It’s hard to predict what the future holds for us,” says Dianne Enriquez, of the Center for Popular Democracy. “We have an opportunity in this country, at this moment, to analyze our failings and our shortcomings as a society, and to really re-envision and establish new norms that actually work for all of us.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: affordable housingcovid-19californiarenters rightsyimby

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