As the COVID-19 shutdown has disrupted the livelihoods of tens of millions of Americans over the last two months, rent and mortgage payments have become flashpoints of concern—and action.
Individuals are worried about how to make their payments. Community and housing organizations, well aware that housing is essential to healthy families and communities, fear the cumulative effect of individual struggles.
With so much at stake, the Center for Community Investment’s local partners have moved quickly on behalf of their communities. We spoke with Carmen Llanes Pulido, Executive Director of Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin (GAVA) and one of CCI’s Fulcrum Fellowship alumni; Heather Vaikona and Araceli Palafox, Executive Director and Deputy Director of Lift to Rise, participants in our Coachella Valley Connect Capital team; and Jessica Smith Perry, Director of Housing Lending for the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh, who is part of the UPMC team in our Accelerating Investments for Healthy Communities initiative. They told us what’s making a difference.
Sharing Accurate Information
Since mid-March, tenant and housing activists have been advocating for eviction moratoria and mortgage forbearance, and many jurisdictions have put new regulations in place. But not everyone who can benefit from these changes knows about them, and incorrect information often circulates through informal channels. “There’s a need for education,” said Llanes Pulido, pointing out that in Austin, for instance, “tenants may not know they live in protected properties where they shouldn’t be pressured to pay rent.”
Many community organizations are informing people of their rights and the resources available to them. In Coachella Valley, Lift to Rise has pulled together all the currently available sources of assistance in English and Spanish, broken out by topic including housing and rent supports. “The goal of the plan,” said Palafox, “is that we connect all community residents to accurate information to support them to get the assistance they need that's available to them.”
Giving People Assistance
A key strategy for both Lift to Rise and GAVA has been direct financial assistance. “What people need right now is cash,” said Llanes Pulido. “They need money to keep things going, to keep their lights on, to keep their rent paid, to keep their mortgage paid, to keep from losing in a way that is a lot harder to recover from.” Partnering with the Family Independence Initiative (FII), who had the capacity to do bank transfers, GAVA was able to distribute over $215,000 to 120 families in two weeks.
When the COVID crisis erupted, Lift to Rise set out to raise $2 million, with an initial goal of giving out $200 cash grants. They raised $1.2 million from public, private, philanthropic, and corporate donors and by May 2 had distributed funds to 2,000 households. At that point, they stopped taking applications so they could process the 4,000 already in the system and prepare a Rental Assistance Fund that will open for business on June 1, for which $2.6 million has already been committed.
Direct cash assistance is quick, eliminates barriers, and allows individuals and families to make their own decisions about what they need, which in turn helps prevent displacement in the short and long term. “It’s a major shift in a mental model about self-determination and trusting people,” said Llanes Pulido. “And there’s a lot of evidence that giving cash is best for disaster relief and crisis response, stabilizes local economies, and also has better outcomes for lifting people out of poverty. It’s not just relief for individuals or families or even communities; it’s about our entire economy.”
Pivoting Existing Programs
In Pittsburgh, the URA quickly recognized the need to provide housing support to families impacted by COVID closures. Fortunately, they already had a Housing Stabilization Program in place. Supported initially by the city’s Housing Trust Fund, known as the Housing Opportunity Fund (HOF), the URA has been contracting with local service providers for the last year to provide up to $3,000 of housing expenses to clients threatened with eviction. Having this infrastructure in place allowed Smith Perry and her team to have a COVID-19 Housing Stabilization Fund up and running by mid-March. The fund, administered initially by the Urban League with additional providers added later, is making payments directly to landlords, utility companies, and—for the first time—mortgage holders.
A strong existing program coupled with creativity made it possible for HOF to pivot so quickly, but Smith Perry expects this work to have lasting impact. “This is a relatively new thing for the redevelopment authority to enter into,” she said. “But we are staffed up to handle it, I see us continuing this work into the future.”
Building upon Partnerships
Partnerships have been essential to all three organizations. Smith Perry mentioned the HOF partnerships with service providers like the Urban League, but also acknowledged their regular meetings with city, state, and county agencies and local foundations to review programs, needs, populations, and funding opportunities—which led to the inclusion of mortgage relief in their fund.
Besides GAVA’s collaboration with FII, they are participating in regular conference calls with Austin nonprofits, city departments, and neighborhood housing organizations running the local rental assistance programs. Because housing is a relatively new focus for GAVA, they have turned to those housing colleagues to build up their knowledge so they can provide the support their communities need.
Lift to Rise has spent the last several years building what Vaikona describes as “deep public-private partnerships,” in part through their work with CCI’s Connect Capital initiative. Bringing together diverse stakeholders—like grassroots advocacy groups and county agencies—is central to their mission. But the COVID relief work has brought in even more partners, like six of the county’s largest agricultural growers. The difference this collective effort makes is significant: “What happens when everyone puts in together is you get to scale, instead of all these piecemealing things,” said Vaikona.
As the U.S. suffers its biggest national crisis since the Great Depression, and low-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of COVID’s health and economic consequences, Vaikona’s words continue to ring in our ears: “We will keep fighting for a space where everyone gets to belong because that's the only way that we're going to solve this. We want the same things. And the only way out of this is together.”