The IWBI Special Report Chapter Series: “Affordable Housing is Fundamental to Health Equity”

Dec 2, 2021 12:05 PM ET
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In September 2021, IWBI released an in-depth report that lays out research approaches and specific operational strategies as the world continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and prepares for acute health threats into the future. Prevention and Preparedness, Resilience and Recovery: An IWBI Special Report integrates proven strategies from the WELL Building Standard (WELL) and actionable insights garnered from IWBI staff and nearly 600 members of the Task Force on COVID-19 and Other Respiratory Infections.

Over the next few months, we will repost a chapter from the report every week to help highlight specific themes and insights. The IWBI Special Report Chapter Series continues with “Affordable Housing is Fundamental to Health Equity,” authored by IWBI’s Kalli Solby, WELL AP, Senior Analyst, Commercial.

Excerpt republished from: Prevention and Preparedness, Resilience and Recovery: An IWBI Special Report

The ability to find stable and secure housing is a fundamental freedom, enshrined by the United Nations in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the vital need for every person to have a home.

During the past year, our apartments and houses have served as more than just residences. They have also functioned as our offices, our classrooms, our places of worship, our exercise studios, our concert halls and movie theaters—and much more. Indeed, there is perhaps no clearer demonstration of the critical overlap between housing and public health than one of our society’s most important strategies for containing the virus: “Stay at home.”

Without a doubt, COVID-19 has created significant challenges for nearly every household. But it has imposed a particularly heavy toll upon families of modest means. Before the pandemic, roughly 1.6 billion people around the world lacked access to adequate housing. And now the devastating economic impacts of the virus have only exacerbated this already dire situation.

Given these circumstances, affordable housing developers can play a major part in helping our society recover and rebuild from this pandemic. In the immediate future, this means offering stability and relief for people who are at risk of losing their homes. Over the longer term, it means taking a holistic approach and empowering residents with resources that can help improve their physical health, educational success and economic mobility.

Excerpt: From Housing Fragility to Housing Stability
The economic turmoil unleashed by COVID-19 has hit vulnerable Americans especially hard. During the initial shutdown, more than half of all lower-wage adults reported losing a job or suffering a pay cut. And while this economic pain was temporary for some, by the end of 2020, there were still 10 million fewer jobs in the U.S. than there had been before the pandemic. Meanwhile, many municipal governments have lifted protections previously put in place for economically vulnerable renters.6 Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended a federal evictions moratorium through June 2021, (and extended a limited moratorium through October 3, 2021 for communities with heightened levels of community transmission due to the rise of the Delta variant), its protections are part of a patchwork of state and federal regulations that are unevenly enforced and challenging to navigate, exacerbating uncertainty and leaving many Americans in danger of losing their homes during a pandemic.

Affordable housing developers must take a proactive role in stabilizing the market and supporting families in need. As a first step, they can partner with community organizations to connect current residents with all available options for obtaining unemployment benefits, assistance with housing payments, prospective job opportunities and resources for securing food (including local food banks). Moreover, developers can work with tenants and with government in formulating alternative and flexible agreements to receive necessary payments to maintain properties…

Excerpt: Housing is Health Care
There is strong evidence linking a lack of quality, affordable housing in the United States with poor health outcomes. Enduring unstable housing dramatically increases rates of stress and substance abuse. In addition, families overwhelmed by rental payments devote less of their incomes toward essentials such as nutritious food and health care. Such health disparities are especially severe among communities of color, who are more likely to face housing insecurity.

COVID-19 has only deepened these massive inequities in housing, wealth and human health. Mortality rates from the virus are dramatically higher in areas of concentrated poverty. Black and Latino individuals—who comprise a disproportionate number of those Americans at risk for eviction—have also died from COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate of white counterparts. And roughly two million seniors in the United States now confront a “triple jeopardy” of risks, as their age, race and modest incomes all render them particularly vulnerable during this crisis…

Excerpt: Connecting Communities to Opportunities—From Hardware to Healthcare
Enacting equitable and inclusive housing policies can provide people with a powerful platform for improving their lives. Research has found that children in the United States who move to new neighborhoods after leaving high-poverty areas are more likely to attend college and achieve economic mobility as adults. Moreover, a survey of global housing policies concluded that increased access to high-quality housing helps people enjoy healthier lives, perform better in school and find better jobs.26

Moving forward, developers can use housing as a means to connect and empower their residents with a wide range of opportunities and resources. And they can start by addressing a major issue facing too many in our society: the digital divide…

Conclusion
As COVID-19 threatens the fundamental human right of housing for millions of Americans and across the world, it is clear more needs to be done to address the housing affordability crisis. In the midst of this pandemic, developers have an opportunity—and an obligation—to ensure that their tenants can experience housing security, enjoy better health outcomes and improve their lives.

But developers cannot solve this crisis alone. They need the continued support of advocates and public officials at all levels. Fortunately, President Biden committed to fund housing assistance in the pandemic response strategy released on his first day in office, where he also named the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a core participant in the administration’s Health Equity Task Force. And on March 11, 2021, he signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act into law—which included nearly $50 billion in housing aid. This relief provides rental assistance for low-income tenants and emergency housing vouchers for the homeless.

While such measures are important first steps, they are not nearly enough. Moving forward, developers need to have access to the resources they need to expand the supply of affordable housing. This can include making significant federal investments to build up to one million government-funded and affordable rental units on publicly owned land. And it can also include dramatically expanding the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit to support developers in acquiring, constructing and rehabilitating affordable housing units.

Our society can only end the housing affordability crisis through the shared commitment and concerted actions of those in government, private industry and the nonprofit community listening to and taking lead from tenants advocating for the things they need to live healthier lives. Together, we can help millions of families weather this pandemic—and work to secure stable housing for all.

Read the full section here.