“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” opens the poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost. The poem describes an annual ritual between two neighbors, brought together to patch the wall between their two fields. As they go about the work, one neighbor asks about the purpose of the wall. The other simply replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But…do walls, in fact, ensure good relations? Previously, the Building Bridges blog has addressed the lack of systemic alignment in the community through the image of failure hoarded in silos. Given the need for distancing driven by COVID-19, this post will employ the idea of a wall.
Since mid-March, the Building Bridges blog has been focused on housing challenges and solutions through the lens of COVID-19. Reviewing these posts, three primary themes have emerged:
- Housing is healthcare;
- What was previously thought impossible is now considered smart and strategic; and
- With new private and public dollars, communities can both mitigate a new wave of COVID-related housing instability and homelessness and address the factors that drove pre-pandemic housing and homelessness issues.
In particular, the post from May 13, “What Does It Mean to Go “Home” in A COVID-19 World?” underscores the fact that, while housing has always been essential to individual health, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the vital role housing plays in ensuring public health.
The blog series first spotlighted the short-term interventions implemented as a crisis response to the COVID-19 pandemic that can (and should) be transformed into permanent solutions addressing the pre-existing conditions of housing instability and homelessness. Topics covered by the series include: eviction prevention; funding distribution and flexibility; shelter capacity; information sharing; evaluation and performance; conversion of hotel leases to permanent housing; and telecommunication.
The blog series concluded by describing ways in which communities can use both a public health and an economic response framework to maximize COVID-19 funding. By “stretching the dollars,” communities can prevent or reduce a new wave of housing instability and homelessness specifically related to the novel coronavirus. Last week’s blog post covered this final impact area of the framework: strengthening systems as critical for an effective public health and economic recovery response.
Strengthening systems requires cross-sector collaboration. Systems-level change can only happen through coordination across the entire service continuum, from funders to providers. Functioning as an integrated system, communities have the power to finally erect solutions to the complex, intractable issues of housing instability and homelessness. What role, then, do walls play in this work?
This blog post will delve further into this question; the current state of housing instability and homelessness; and what it all means for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
TRENDS IN HOUSING INSTABILITY & HOMELESSNESS
A wall in need of attention is a helpful metaphor to understand trends in housing instability and homelessness, too. On one side of the wall is what housing costs; on the other is what households can afford. From 2005 to 2017, inflation-adjusted median gross rent has increased by 18%. In comparison, median household income has increased by only 4% during that same period. Since 2008, this gap (or wall) has only increased (or been raised), thereby separating housing from households. Who believes that the height of this wall improves relations with the neighbors?
Closing this gap (or dismantling this wall) requires changing the equation: increase housing stock that is affordable and/or increase household income levels to cover these expenses. Increasing household income can (and should) include efforts by which discrete entities align to gather resources from the maximum possible funding sources; and disperse assistance in a coordinated manner to the greatest possible number of recipients. These supports are one way to help make the math work: childcare subsidies; low- or no-cost healthcare; access to transportation; and opportunities for continuing education.
The two sections below provide an overview of both sides of the wall today:
DESCRIBING THE DEMAND
In May, the National Alliance to End Homelessness released the “The State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition,” an annual update on local, state and national trends in homelessness in the United States. The report shows that, for the third year in a row, there has been a rise in homelessness nationally according to Point-in-Time Count data. During this same period, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has also experienced a year-over-year increase. Nationally, the growth was measured at 3% from 2018 to 2019. Locally, the total population experiencing homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg rose by 4%. It should be stressed that the Point-in-Time Count is an undercount because of the HUD-provided definitions of homelessness. Consider this the rising sea level against which future waves and troughs will be measured, and against which a strong wall must be built.
Over the last 11 months, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg One Number data indicates that there has been a 51% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in our community. This equates to 97 new households becoming homeless each month in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. When the inflow of households outpaces those exiting into permanent housing, the total number of people experiencing homelessness increases.
Looking upstream, the crest of this wave is even higher. There are over 78,000 renter households who are cost-burdened, which means that they are spending more than 30% of their income on housing-related costs. While not all these households will flow into homelessness, they are at a much higher risk: often one paycheck or medical crisis away from not being able to pay their rent. The economic fallout from COVID-19 has only added to these issues. Eviction moratoria and financial assistance have provided a temporary reprieve, but that sea wall alone will not be sufficient against the potential storm surge to come.
DESCRIBING THE SUPPLY
Nationally, there is a shortage of housing supply to meet the demand from households of all income levels. This shortage puts pressure on home prices and rents, which both erodes affordability and negatively impacts the households who earn the least. According to a new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is a deficit of 40,545 affordable and available units for households with income at or below 30% of AMI (or below $26,200 annually for a family of four) across the Charlotte-Mecklenburg MSA. Put another way, there are only 33 affordable and available units per 100 households at or below 30% AMI. A family of four at this income level can afford, at most, $655 each month without being cost burdened.
New public and private funding related to COVID-19 can be allocated as rental assistance to help households cover the rental gap. This funding has also been used by some communities to incentivize landlords to take new tenants and/or renew existing leases. While this supports those households currently in a lease (or in the process of signing a lease), it does not address the supply shortage. There is no local data source available that tabulates all new housing units affordable at or below 30% of AMI. According to the 2019 Charlotte-Mecklenburg State of Housing Instability and Homelessness Report, only 1,112 housing units for households earning at or below 30% of AMI have been added to the community’s low-cost housing supply between 2002 and 2019 using Housing Trust Fund dollars. Not enough walls, along with windows, doors, and roofs, have been built to house the community’s most vulnerable.
The verb “safeguard” typically refers to the protection of something of value: money, treasure, food, success. Along with the shelter-in-place orders in March, there have been examples of individuals securing and saving supplies, like toilet paper and cleaning products. In contrast, we discard what we dislike or no longer value. We (try to) shield ourselves from disaster. We stack bricks between ourselves and our failures. After all, good fences make good neighbors.
But…do they? Current trends in housing instability and homelessness painted a bleak enough picture, even in a pre-COVID-19 world. The trends and numbers we see today were set in motion long ago, by structurally discriminatory practices. These include redlining, which literally drew lines across whole neighborhoods, walling off opportunity and wealth. They have also persisted, in part, due to walls constructed by competition and other factors. These include funding sources, programming, and policies. Instead of a system, there are silos.
Depending upon context, walls can have either a positive or negative connotation. Walls can help defend our stockpiles; they can also effectively isolate things (and people) from each other. A walled-off approach to a complex problem like the housing instability and homelessness continuum may preserve the ability of an individual organization to perform its desired mission, but precludes the full community from ownership and oversight of the kind of comprehensive efforts needed to realize meaningful change.
Why, then, erect walls against systemic change? “Good fences make good neighbors.” In Mending Wall, even the neighbor who questioned the purpose of the wall continued to return each spring to mend it. What happens with there is no wall? Considering the short-term interventions highlighted in the blog series, communities have learned that some walls can be adjusted temporarily; still others can be completely and permanently demolished, with positive results. Other areas may instead require the construction of a new wall, to channel the flow of resources or to fight the pending tide of evictions.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg can (and should) honestly consider the purpose of, and need for, every wall (or barrier). If no systemic rationale exists, consider removing it. If the system needs a wall, the community should come together to mend or construct it. Communities can also use the new COVID-19 funding and waivers to identify comprehensive solutions that transcend outdated walls, linking efforts across different sectors; aligning strategies and processes; and allocating funding that encourages cooperation instead of competition. Changing the trajectory of trends in housing instability and homelessness is only possible, if done as a system. The elements of a functioning system should be “something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
Courtney LaCaria coordinates posts on the Building Bridges Blog. Courtney is the Housing & Homelessness Research Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. Courtney’s job is to connect data on housing instability, homelessness and affordable housing with stakeholders in the community so that they can use it to drive policy-making, funding allocation and programmatic change.