Today, December 21, marks the first day of winter. At about 11am today, the Winter Solstice will occur with the Sun reaching its highest position in the sky. This means for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, tonight will be the longest night of the year.
For the last thirty years, December 21 has also been recognized as the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, when communities remember each of the individuals who have died while experiencing homelessness in the year that is drawing to a close. Remembering the issue of homelessness, and more specifically, where people experiencing homelessness will sleep on this long, dark night, provides a somber reminder about the sheer lack of affordable housing for everyone.
Although the day itself will be darker than any other, the significance of today need not be consumed by the darkness. The term “solstice” is derived from the Latin words “sol,” which means “the sun,” and “sistere” which means “to make stand.” Literally, this is translated as “the sun stands still.” The winter solstice becomes a time to make use of the sun’s “standing energy,” taking stock of what has transpired and contemplating new beginnings.
Winter solstice rituals and celebrations have been taking place for over 12,000 years. In fact, some cultures believed this day to be the sun’s literal “rebirth.” To commemorate this year’s winter solstice and the opportunity for new rays of hope to shine in 2022, this week’s blog post will spotlight three examples from other communities who are trying different approaches to address housing instability and homelessness; and ultimately, what this could mean for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
FAITH COMMUNITY LEVERAGES STRENGTHS, FILLS HOLE
In November, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University released an article by Rick Reinhard, “What if houses of worship helped build more affordable housing?” The article outlines practical opportunities (and examples) for the faith community to consider in leveraging both their physical assets to build more affordable housing as well as lead local advocacy efforts to facilitate affordable housing development. And, to do so in a way that can also benefit the faith community, itself.
Examples include: YIGBY (Yes in God’s Back Yard) housing reforms; establishment of large-scale denominational funds that can help individual houses of worship with planning, financing, and developing projects; and leveraging vacant land and/or underutilized/deteriorating buildings that they can no longer afford to keep or keep up for affordable housing and/or mixed use, including for continued use by the house of worship.
EXPEDITE THE PROCESSES SPECIFICALLY FOR DEEPLY AFFORDABLE HOUSING
With the largest gap in affordable housing for households at or below 30% of Area Median Income (AMI), communities can see “quick wins” by targeting any low hanging fruit that could speed up the development, rehabilitation, or preservation of what is known as “deeply affordable housing.”
In 2021, Destination: Home shared the results of a pilot project with the City of San Jose´ to reduce the time it takes for the planning department to review proposals for deeply affordable housing projects. “Destination: Home provided a capacity-building grant to the City’s Planning, Building and Code Enforcement Department to fund a planner dedicated to expediting the review of affordable housing developments.” As a result, the review time for just those developments was reduced by 20%, decreasing project timelines (and associated costs) by an average of 2 months.
AFFORDABLE & ACCESSIBLE CHILDCARE & PRE-SCHOOL TO HELP STRUGGLING FAMILIES MAKE THE MATH WORK
The primary driver of housing instability and homelessness is the gap between rising housing costs and household income. Even so, sometimes the cost of childcare outstrips the cost of housing. Low-income families either have to choose between the two, or make sacrifices on one or both, in terms of things like quality and location (for either housing or childcare). In 2020, the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, a new voter-approved department focused on early childhood, was created with a universal preschool program set to launch in 2023.
According to a report about the new universal preschool program last week, it would “provide 10 hours of free, high-quality preschool every week to all 4-year-olds in the state. Preschool would be opt-in for families and would be delivered through a range of providers, including school districts, community-based centers and other facilities.” In addition, the federal Build Back Better plan proposes providing universal, free preschool for three- and four-year olds, and creating a program that would limit childcare costs to no more than 7% of a family’s income for low-income households.
In addition to the Winter Solstice, December 21 is also known as National Crossword Puzzle Day, National French Fried Shrimp Day, and National Flashlight Day. I’ve always associated December 21 with my dad’s birthday. My dad, who died four years ago, was big on transforming everyday occurrences into life lessons. He called them “Dad 101s.” I didn’t always like (or, rather, appreciate) them at the time they were delivered; however, as an adult, I continue to see their application, and am now grateful for the chance to grow from them.
For a period of time my dad was also my soccer coach. Dad 101s did not stop at the soccer field. As a coach, my dad taught us, players, the importance of both getting really good at the basic skills and playing like a team if we wanted to have a chance at winning. But, beyond that, he said the secret ingredient to “winning” was heart. Simply put, did we want it more? Because no matter how skilled an opposing team might be, if we wanted (and won) every ball in every challenge throughout the ninety minutes, then he had no doubt the outcome of the game. Skills mattered for sure; but heart mattered more.
Heart does matter. And, not just in soccer, or any other game. Changing the trajectory of homelessness requires changing hearts. Knowing what the solutions are and how to assemble them in a plan for systemic change is essential. Executing such a plan effectively requires community ownership. It needs the community’s heart wanting the change more than settling for the status quo. The alternative to systemic change is dark, and it’s here: communities across the United States are seeing increasing numbers of homelessness and housing instability, and a deepening chasm between affordable housing inventory and the people who need access to those units.
So, perhaps, the question, we should ask ourselves on this day is: What will it take to change (our) hearts to change the path (we) are on? Is it having the right message delivered from the right group at the right time? Is it total reliance on the public sector? Is it a collective call to action from the faith community, grassroots organizations, and advocacy groups? What will it take for each of us to see, in the light of day, that affordable housing is (actually) good for everyone?
The winter solstice marks a turning point, after which the days become longer. The season is changing, and brighter days are ahead of us. There is still time. Today is the day to pause, in the darkness, and reflect. Ask the questions. Tomorrow is an opportunity to change hearts, and therefore change course, individually and as a community, so that everyone has a place they can call home.
This is the last Building Bridges blog for 2021. Happy New Year.
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.