On March 18, a new Building Bridges blog series was launched to share solutions from other communities and highlight key interventions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week’s blog post focused on how communities can integrate telecommunication as a permanent component of housing-focused supportive services. This new Building Bridges series looks at community responses to COVID-19 using a prospicient lens: What short-term, community responses can become long-term, systemic solutions? Which immediate interventions can effectively and efficiently address the structural issues that lead to housing instability and homelessness? What “new thing” can evolve into “business as usual?” And what is needed to create healthy, stable communities permanently?
This week’s blog post is co-authored with John Gaulden, Managing Director and Principal at Gensler, a global design and architecture firm. This post illustrates how changes in the concept of “home” pre- and post-COVID-19 have important implications for multiple audiences working to address housing instability and homelessness, including planners; funders; builders; developers; service organizations; and elected officials.
If the world was a house, the COVID-19 pandemic is the earthquake that has exposed fractures deep within our societal foundation, illuminating issues of inequity, and injustice. These historical fault lines have long divided neighborhoods, diverted opportunity, and disrupted communities. A striking example of this foundational crack is the fact that millions of people around the globe are unable to “shelter-in-place,” because they have no home at all. Here in our community, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg currently totals over 3,600.
In response to COVID-19, “shelter-in-place” orders have brought a new sense of urgency to the need for housing. Housing is a prerequisite to isolate or quarantine oneself. Therefore, housing is necessary to preserve the health of everyone around us. Indeed, in just the past few months, housing means more than a physical structure. Housing is also healthcare, protection, and prevention. Housing equals safety.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO FEEL SAFE IN OUR HOME?
At a basic level, housing provides a level of safety. In Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, essentials like food, warmth, and rest (much of which come from our homes) form the foundation on which our safety and security needs are met. Feeling “safe” in our homes is generally dependent upon locational factors like neighborhood and access to nearby services. It also involves the physical space itself: adequate lighting, clear visibility, ability to secure personal space, and cleanliness/order.
In addition, our level of safety is derived from other aspects like connection to others and sense of community, routines, sense of autonomy or control over our environment, pride of space, and access to light and nature. With this in mind, it is difficult (if not impossible) for a person without a home to feel safe. Access to safe, quality homes was limited even before COVID-19. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, there are only 33 affordable and available housing units for every 100 households who earn less than 30% of Area Median Income.
Even for individuals with housing, the COVID-19 aftershock has unsettled our spaces and our lives, challenging traditional notions of safety. While we “shelter-in-place,” COVID-19 has still managed to invade our sanctuaries. For some of us, this is literally the case: we have had members in our home fall ill, requiring abrupt changes in how we use our spaces altogether. This means we might have to avoid common areas; separate family members; and clean the same spaces multiple times a day. This can lead to fear and avoidance within our own homes. Connecting with neighbors and the outside world requires planning to reduce the risk that we might give and/or receive the virus. If one member of a household becomes sick, protocol tells us to cut off entire sections of our homes so that the virus cannot spread. Isolation and quarantine, even in the safety of one’s own home, can result in negative impacts on mental and physical health. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, for example, showed that 45% of adults have had their mental health “negatively impacted due to worry and stress” related to COVID-19.
Many households entered the COVID-19 crisis already in fear, simply because their income is out of proportion to the cost of their housing. Living paycheck to paycheck, one medical crisis or missed day of work can propel a low-income household into homelessness. This pre-existing stress is now coupled with changes from having to “shelter-in-place” as well as the pressure to continue to bring in a paycheck. Households with low incomes tend to work in industries that have been especially negatively impacted by COVID-19: either because hours are reduced or lost altogether, or work requires potential exposure to the novel coronavirus. With fewer resources, many low-income households have no choice but to leave the safety of home so that they can barely pay for a home to which to return.
HOW WILL THIS EXPERIENCE CHANGE THE WAYS WE USE OUR HOMES?
For anyone who has a space to shelter-in-place, adjustments have likely been made to accommodate other COVID-19-related changes, like supporting a child attending virtual school. Those who are fortunate to have jobs which can be performed remotely have also made shifts in their homes to accommodate telework. COVID-19 has also impacted our lives by requiring that we adapt to new, seemingly open-ended “routines.” Many are now, for the first time, working/living/learning/eating/playing within the same space – and sometimes even the same room. Rooms originally conceived for one purpose now serve multiple functions. While “shelter-in-place” orders are not likely to be permanent, some of the changes we have implemented, including how we conceptualize and use our space, will certainly stay with us.
There are macro changes around us, like students who can’t go to a physical school. Employers and office workers who may stay at home and others who will go through screening to return to work settings.
In the home, there are modifications that range from setting up a family to work from the dining room: kids “attending” schools next to parents responding to emails; to permanent alterations, such as converting a guest bedroom to an office. Single and multifamily developments may feature more “live/work” units, or accessory dwelling units (ADUs) that can be configured as offices or isolation quarters. These ADUs or other flexible spaces may also allow households to lease a part of their homes to another individual or family, thereby providing a supplemental income stream while addressing the need for more safe, affordable housing.
In a post-COVID-19 world, what implications does “housing as healthcare” have on how we approach design, build, and live within our physical spaces? How can everyone feel both safe and at home?
Before COVID-19, we knew that that loss of income could mean loss of home for our fragile communities. Now, we have been clearly shown that housing is both individual healthcare and public health. While the cracks in our foundation predate the pandemic, COVID-19 has illuminated the shared consequences that the absence of a home has on a community.
Communities must begin thinking about housing as disease prevention and mitigation. Secure housing not only protects the person inside the home, but everyone on the outside, too. As a first step to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, communities must ensure that everyone has a space in which they can “shelter-in-place.” Also, what implications does this have for how we provide “shelter” for people experiencing homeless in the future? Is a congregate setting no longer safe?
Secondly, we must consider what temporary changes made to homes in response to COVID-19 should become permanent in planning for new housing (a new baseline). How can we ensure that everyone has access to a stable “home” that also feels safe? How can we ensure that safety and affordability in housing are the “new normal?” How do we construct flexible spaces so that families feel safe to focus, collaborate, socialize, and learn? How can we build resilient, resource-rich communities that promote the health and well-being of all residents?
And finally, will the lessons learned from the pandemic response include realizing the value of all people, include those experiencing homelessness? Planning a future that encompasses every person is the best possible way to put our foundations on the most solid ground.
John Gaulden is Co-Managing Director of Gensler’s Charlotte office. John brings more than 30 years of experience in design and business to every project. He serves as a trusted advisor, partnering with clients to translate their vision into a design story. John has deep expertise in consulting and master planning and is often called upon to determine the size and scope of a project. He is adept at assembling the right team for each project and ensuring that all design options are explored and the solutions thoroughly developed. John has developed long-standing relationships with his clients, including Fortune 500 companies, commercial real estate developers and highly regarded non-profits. His work has received numerous design excellence awards from such organizations as the American Institute of Architects and The Building Owners and Managers Association International. A Registered Architect, John earned a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from Clemson University and a Master of Architecture from Rice University.
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.