Last week, the Building Bridges blog launched a new series, reflecting upon each of the six potential short-term interventions enacted in response to COVID-19 that could become long-term “business as usual” practices.
During the past year, there has been an infusion of public and private housing-related assistance to address the impacts of COVID-19 and help keep people housed. Most recently, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) appropriates approximately $50B in housing-related assistance for lower-income households facing housing instability or currently experiencing homelessness; these funds will also indirectly help struggling landlords and property owners. While the COVID-19 relief packages can help address issues caused by the pandemic, they do not resolve the pre-existing conditions of housing instability and homelessness that predated it.
Housing instability and homelessness is already trending in the wrong direction and are only likely to worsen as a result of COVID-19. Ending and preventing homelessness is arduous work even in a booming economic cycle, and without the added system stressor of a pandemic. How funding is allocated matters, whether new or pre-existing.
How can communities leverage existing resources and ensure new funding goes as far as possible? What new ways can funding be paired or deployed to address structural issues that predate the pandemic? What new funding mechanisms can transition into long-term change catalysts? How can new and existing public and private funding align to maximize impact and drive systemic solutions?
This week’s blog post is dedicated to issues of flexibility and sustainability of funding to address housing instability and homelessness in response to COVID-19; and what this could ultimately mean for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
OVERVIEW OF COVID-19 HOUSING & HOMELESSNESS RELATED FUNDING
Since the start of the pandemic, almost $85 billion has been appropriated in emergency housing and homelessness assistance through the American Rescue Plan Act, the December COVID-19 relief bill, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The $2 trillion CARES Act, which provided the first wave of COVID-19 relief assistance, was signed on March 27, 2020. The CARES Act allocates over $12 billion for housing and homelessness related assistance. This included $4 billion in Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) and $5 billion for Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). Housing provisions included flexibility in the form of waivers so that the dollars could be applied where they are most needed in any given community.
The 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA), which became law on December 27, 2020, provided $25 billion in rental assistance through the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) Program. An additional $21.55 billion ERA program infusion was added through the American Rescue Plan, enacted on March 11, 2021. The American Rescue Plan also provided $5 billion in homelessness assistance; $5 billion in additional Housing Choice Vouchers to support households at risk of or currently experiencing homelessness; $9.96 billion in homeowner assistance; $120 million to support housing counseling and fair housing activities; and $5 billion to cover utility debt and/or costs for impacted households.
Beyond housing-related assistance, the American Rescue Plan also provides individual-level assistance, which can help lower-income households, or households who have lost their employment, through stimulus checks; child tax credits; and enhanced unemployment assistance. Finally, there are non-housing provisions in the American Rescue Plan that complement the housing provisions by strengthening cross-sector supports, including through increased healthcare and public benefits, as well as measures to reduce food insecurity.
LONG-TERM VIEW ON HOUSING & HOMELESSNESS RELATED FUNDING
Public and private funding is critical to support all of the households already experiencing homelessness or housing instability, as well as households at risk of losing their housing over the next year specifically as a result of COVID-19. Additional funding will be needed for months and, quite possibly, years from now to address the long-term economic consequences of COVID-19. Like any economic crisis, COVID-19 has impacted, and will continue to impact, lower-income households disproportionately. Therefore, as communities are grappling with how to care for households in crisis today, they must also look down the road to anticipate the needs of lower-income households in three-, six-, and twelve-months from now. At the same time, communities must plan for how to best allocate housing-related funding to maximize impact both now and in the future.
To help communities allocate resources from COVID-19 relief packages, several entities have released guidelines for consideration. These include The Framework for an Equitable COVID-19 Homelessness Response. Evaluations have also been conducted on the ERA program to help communities make adjustments with new dollars. In fact, an analysis of over 200 ERA programs funded with COVID-19 relief dollars as conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Housing Initiatives, the NYU Furman Center, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, found that leveraging existing programs, networks, partnerships, and infrastructure contributed to faster funding allocations to the households who needed it; flexible funding and/or programming enabled quicker distribution of funds; targeting assistance to households with the lowest incomes was more effective than programs targeting households with moderate incomes; and programs with increased or more stringent requirements for landlord participation resulted in serving fewer households.
The following framework below combines key principles from The Framework for an Equitable COVID-19 Homelessness Response with lessons learned from the ERA program evaluation. It also emphasizes service and funding alignment to ensure the dollars go further; and a focus on both upstream and downstream impacts:
Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.“
Communities like Charlotte-Mecklenburg can use a framework, like the one presented in this week’s blog, to develop system-focused priorities while attending to existing disparities and structural issues. This can chart a new course for communities and change the trajectory of households facing housing instability and homelessness.
Future posts in this series will continue to focus on this important shift from recent short-term interventions to longer-term modifications. Check back here each week to find out more.
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.