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Bringing the Right People Together: Housing Policy and the COVID-19 Crisis

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“You have to bring everyone to the table if you want to think progressively and with any kind of ingenuity. Take something like Renter’s Choice, there’s probably going to be some initial pushback from landlords because it’s unknown. They’re accustomed to doing things the way they’ve always done them. That doesn’t mean they’re not willing to change, it means you have to bring people to the table to show them how it works so there’s a level of trust. I think the model that we’ve seen out of Cincinnati introduced by Councilman PG Sittenfeld is that you can build collaboration up and down the chain to pass a piece of successful legislation.” -Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein

COVID-19 and social distancing have changed the way we have conversations, but we refuse to let this crisis keep us from connecting with the people and groups who help us make sure we’re doing our best work. Our team at Rhino believes in collaborating with policymakers at the City Council, Mayoral, and State Legislative levels to deliver solutions that work for renters and property owners. Opening constructive dialogue between elected officials who serve different parts of our country advances that mission.

On Friday, April 17th we hosted our first virtual roundtable, convening elected officials from cities and states across the country for a discussion about housing policies and constituent support initiatives to combat the challenges associated with COVID-19. We were proud to partner in convening this group with The NewDEAL, a national network of pro-growth, rising star leaders.

This is not a 2008–2009 housing crisis where money was tight. This is a forced economic shutdown for a public health response, and money is available.

A national audience filled the (virtual) room to listen and learn about the feedback that these leaders have received from their constituents in response to the challenges brought on by COVID-19 and the economic uncertainty that preceded, and will long succeed it. In a conversation full of firsthand insights and ideas for solutions, here are some that stood out:

The numbers we’re seeing call for immediate action…

In a recent national television interview, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper reported that the state’s unemployment claims for April 2020 were already well over the monthly volume observed during the Great Recession. There have already been over 540,000 claims submitted for unemployment in North Carolina this month, and that number grows every day. A National Multifamily Housing Council study also showed that through the first five days of April 2020, 31% of renters had failed to pay rent vs. 18% for the same period last year. With these data points framing our discussion, North Carolina Representative Ashton Clemmons raised an important point that was later echoed by other members of our panel: “We’re delaying these issues for the immediate physical needs of people which is important, but what happens when the rent is actually due on the first of May, or the first of June, or beyond?”

We must create short-term and long-term solutions simultaneously…

Columbus, Ohio City Attorney Zach Klein highlighted the need for policymakers to think several steps ahead — to solutions such as Renter’s Choice — in commenting: “If we’re waiting to the very end for these [eviction] moratoriums to lift and then thinking about what we’re going to do, it’s going to be too late.” Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Council Member-at-Large Derek Green and Richmond, Virginia Council Member Andreas Addison also painted an important picture in detailing how their city’s leaders are taking steps like working directly with banks to provide relief to renters and making sure that utility companies are upholding the basic needs of people to “stay warm, stay cool, and be able to preserve their food.”

There are many issues that preceded this crisis and many that will outlive it…

At the start of our discussion, Representative Ashton Clemmons also took a moment to address economic uncertainty in her state that was present even before the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis: “What we know is that for many of the folks in our community and across the country, even in the best case scenario, their wages are not matching the income that’s needed for a small, stable living environment. What we see is that those people who were on the fringes of this, who are spending 60% of their income on housing when we know it should really be around 30%, have been hit hardest by the recent economic downturn.” State Representative Caroline Simmons of Connecticut spoke to the impact felt in her district as well as the more than 330,000 residents who’ve filed for unemployment in her state, citing a significant backlog in the Connecticut Department of Labor as a bottleneck to residents receiving the support they need to be able to afford their rent and mortgage payments — all of this in a district that was ranked high in cost of living even before our current crisis.

COVID-19 is revealing the cracks in the system…

Richmond Council Member Andreas Addison provided us with insight from his unique vantage point as an elected leader and Adjunct Professor of social enterprise at the University of Virginia on the notion that housing policy has been littered with inadequacies long before COVID-19 emerged. What COVID-19 does, however, is shine a light on these shortcomings in a way we’ve never seen before. To that end, Council Member Addison emphasized the need to elevate our focus on equity so that our current challenges do not replicate our previous ones. He spoke on economic mobility and the prioritization of lifting people out of poverty and eliminating the barriers that stand in the way of doing so. He also spoke at length about empathy, and about understanding stories from the perspective of people who are experiencing struggle. These issues have existed from the very beginning of our society, but COVID-19 has given them new life. We must all work to understand what this means going forward.

The tools to build a more affordable future already exist…

The best way to arrive at innovative and impactful housing policy is through collaboration. We’ve seen it in Cincinnati with Renter’s Choice Legislation, and we’ll continue to see it in other cities and states across the country. Bringing members of all stakeholder groups to the table reduces confusion and friction around new initiatives, and having these people present in important and generative conversations is the only way to build trust and create transparency around initiatives that have the potential to help millions of people. This commitment to collaboration is a key step in addressing housing affordability issues new and old. Rhino will continue fostering this collaboration at every possible opportunity.

Our mission is to give renters financial alternatives to afford the homes they want.

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