The coronavirus has plunged the country into a crisis few alive have ever experienced. As the weeks wore on and the death toll mounted, the pandemic did something else: It laid bare our country’s deep inequities. Those getting sick and dying were disproportionately low-income people of color. The essential workers in the grocery stores and delivery vans were largely low-income people of color. And the small businesses most impacted were often run by people of color. Health and economic hardship in America is not a shared crisis.
But with every national disaster comes an opportunity to look to the future with new urgency and new voices because, as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti put it, “is normal what we really want to come back to?” The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery only put a finer point on his question.
We put that same question to leaders in community development and health care. Their responses were hopeful but grounded. If there was a common theme, it was that we must use our muscle memory from the 2008 economic collapse to ensure this recovery, unlike that one, brings everyone along with it.
“As we saw in 2008,” said Priscilla Almodovar, CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, “those less able to recover on their own are the ones left behind. We can’t do that again.”
The Time is Now
One thing is certain, said several of those interviewed: community development and the health care sectors no longer must convince people that health is a byproduct of our social and physical environments. Covid-19 has made that abundantly clear. It’s hard to find a coronavirus news story today that doesn’t mention the inequities springing from social determinants of health.
“For those of us whose life work has focused on these seemingly intractable issues, we’ve been waiting for these moments where it gets clear,” said Salin Geevarghese, CEO of SGG Insight and former HUD official in the Obama Administration.
Nicholas Fritz, impact investing director at Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, saw the shift happen almost overnight. Fritz is in charge of channeling Intermountain’s sizable impact fund to community-building projects. In March, as Covid-19 was bearing down, the executive leadership team at the hospital quickly agreed to elevate community health indicators in its ongoing strategy.
“Folks came into the room ready for the conversation — it wasn’t a hard sell,” Fritz said. “Social determinants of health were always mid-mind for them, but now they are front of mind.”
A paradox of this heightened attention, however, is that when the impact is so disproportionate, it becomes too easy for many to throw up their hands and say, “it’s them, not me.”
“That’s when we lose our interest,” said Geevarghese. “So, I worry that our original sin of structural, institutional racism can creep up and we don’t see the shared pain we need to see. When you combine fraying relationships, increased segregation and the separate lives we lead, people get overwhelmed and the easier it is to become detached from one another.”
Lisa Mensah, president and CEO of Opportunity Finance Network, a leading national association of community development financial institutions (CDFIs), shares that worry. “Speaking as a person of color, I know no one who doesn’t think disaffection isn’t a risk.”
But, she added, the coronavirus has created strong advocates for low-income communities in high places, like Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Financial Services, and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. An equitable recovery is very much on their agendas, she said.
Because of these advocates and others, Washington has earmarked $1 billion for CDFIs in the latest Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, act, which awaits Senate action. The infusion will help ensure CDFIs can continue their critical work of supporting low-income communities.
Capitalizing on that recognition from Washington and elsewhere must be met with strong leadership and deep and broad partnerships, many argued.
“This will take a massive public and private response,” Mensah said. “That’s a question of action. We can’t wait five years to strengthen communities.”
The job of closing disparities in health and opportunity will be neither quick nor easy, “but we have to be committed to getting there. That’s where the hope has to remain,” said Dr. Samuel Ross, chief community health officer at Bon Secours, one of the nation’s largest Catholic health systems.
Intermountain Health is taking public-private partnerships to heart. Before the virus hit, Intermountain had partnered with the Clark and Christine Ivory Foundation, Zions Bank, and the Utah Nonprofit Housing Corporation to create the $20 million Utah Housing Preservation Fund. Knowing the local rental market is “going to get really ugly,” the impact fund has since amped up its affordable housing investments. The goal to scale it to $100 million over the next few years has taken on even more urgency, Fritz said.
“Covid has created a sense of urgency to expand the fund so that if next month’s housing prices go down, the fund is in a position to buy,” Fritz said. That would help keep homes out of the hands of corporate profiteers, who during the 2008 housing crisis hoovered up thousands of homes at rock-bottom prices only to flip them for profit, driving up real estate and rental costs.
The Fund is focused on the types of homes that are particularly attractive to these flippers. Many are older homes with mom-and-pop landlords who lack the financial backing to absorb upcoming rent losses as their tenants struggle to pay. A sweetened offer from a large corporation would be particularly tempting for them, Fritz said. “We just need to be able to act quickly to not lose them to flippers.” The Fund recently closed on 46 units that will now stay affordable.
Intermountain is not the only one thinking along these lines. Land banks and other forms of shared equity are on the rise and could see even more attention if real estate prices decline. Romi Hall, director of healthy homes and communities at NeighborWorks America, which leads a network of 250 nonprofit organizations, thinks organizations should also be buying parcels for other community benefits as well, such as for grocery stores or green space.
Enterprise is looking beyond housing to economic issues and the future of work, said Almodovar. Housing will remain a core issue, she said, but with the pandemic, the board paused to assess its current strategies and is now considering new partnerships to help families be more resilient by strengthening their economic security and job mobility, for example, or to help the formerly incarcerated get back on their feet, starting with a place to live. When issues like health, welfare, community investment, and affordable housing are all so interconnected, it’s imperative to break out of silos and look at concentric circles and how it all works together, Almodovar said.
Double Down and Listen to Communities
It is critical that amid the urgency of the moment organizations do not lose sight of their larger goals, said Paul Singh, vice president of community initiatives at NeighborWorks. The proverbial race is a marathon not a sprint, even though the moment feels acute.
“That means keeping true to where a community wants to be in five to ten years. We must equip communities to lay out that vision and execute it,” he said.
To set those sights most effectively means listening to the communities themselves. Interventions that do not meet residents’ needs — what they say they need, not what funders and organizations think they need — will ultimately be unsustainable, Singh said.
Listening to residents means “hearing the need for racial healing and transformation for all of us,” said Geevarghese. What would it mean, he asks, to integrate racial healing within neighborhood transformation efforts such that “any time we do these transformation projects we create the context for a bridging conversation across race and class for residents not only to frame their aspirations of a place but also address underlying trauma?”
As the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery (and far too many others) reveal, the time could not be more urgent. Adiyah Ali, a development officer at LISC, wrote in a recent blog that it is time for community development to address structural racism — the root cause of the many disparities that community development works so hard to redress.
“The racial wealth gap cannot be closed without addressing racism head on.” she wrote, “If we do not address racism with the same fervor that we’ve put towards helping our communities respond to Covid-19, then our efforts to catalyze opportunity for all will be for naught.”
While some remain skeptical that any real change will come about since we’ve whiffed before, “We have to give people the opportunity to swing,” said Geevarghese. “You may strike out, but you can’t not swing” — because, as Geevarghese’s boss, Barack Obama tweeted after George Floyd’s death, we must all “work together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions and our hearts.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a light on the structural racism that leads directly to the health and economic inequities the coronavirus has exposed. The virus “has made it okay to talk about the facts,” said Enterprise’s Almodovar. “ I actually think this is an opportunity for us all to elevate and bring greater focus and intention to our work.”
For more resources to help the community development and health sectors respond to Covid-19, see here.
This story was co-published with the Build Healthy Places Network. Read it on their site here.
Barbara Ray has nearly 30 years of academic publishing and policy writing experience.