To Protect Public Health, We Must Address Our Housing Challenges

As we thank our health workers during National Public Health Week, communities across the country continue emergency response to COVID-19. In the Bay Area, residents have been sheltering in place for weeks and grappling with the threat posed by this global pandemic—not just to our health, but to widening existing inequities in our housing and economic systems.

The challenge is great, but there are promising solutions. Smart policy plus people power can help solve our housing crisis and economic inequality. The work has new urgency, as our longstanding housing challenges collide with the new public health threat of COVID-19.

One of the clearest examples of this is that the effectiveness of sheltering in place—a key mitigation strategy—is entirely dependent on whether people can safely stay in their homes, something that is not possible for a growing number of Bay Area residents. Many in our community are homeless or at risk of losing their housing, such as and the hundreds of thousands who have lost their jobs and can’t pay rent.

As our local governments and community leaders work in overtime to respond to COVID-19, the connection between housing and health has never been clearer, both for individual and community health.

Not only is our health system ill-prepared to address a crisis of this magnitude, but so is our housing infrastructure. The Bay Area has the third largest homeless population in the country, with around 30,000 people as of 2017, and that number has only grown in the years leading to the current public health crisis. The conditions of homelessness—such as crowded encampments, lack of healthcare, and poor sanitation resources—create environments that facilitate the rapid spread of infectious diseases. This means that housing must be one of our first lines of defense against COVID-19.

There is reason to be hopeful. Already, we’re seeing local communities adopt creative strategies to address homelessness and health, like Oakland repurposing hotels to shelter people who are unhoused, or San Jose rolling out a plan to build hundreds of tiny homes as shelters. Innovation at the local level often serves as a pilot that opens the door to wider change: where local governments lead, the state often follows.

Of course, homelessness is only part of the picture. With skyrocketing housing costs, many Bay Area households are considered “housing insecure”—that is, 30% or more of their income spent on housing costs, meaning they are often at risk of losing their homes if they experience a loss of income or a financial emergency. On top of that, many families are experiencing job losses and must deal with the associated loss of employer-provided healthcare.

Given that the US unemployment rates are the worst they’ve been since Great Depression and workers across the board are struggling, we’re now at a critical crossroads: can we take bold action to prevent housing-insecure folks from hitting the tipping point into homelessness?

To address the current crisis and prevent future ones, we must invest in short-term and long-term housing solutions, especially in tenant protection and the preservation of affordable housing. This is why the Partnership for the Bay’s Future is supporting Bay Area local governments and community groups in using policy to promote housing equity.

But simply getting people into housing—and keeping them housed—isn’t enough. The health impacts of housing go well beyond the ability to take shelter from a global pandemic. The quality and safety of housing matters, along with housing affordability, neighborhoods where residents feel a sense of safety and belonging, and proximity to important resources like jobs and schools. And data shows that people’s health suffers when they do not feel stable and secure in their housing.

Yet so many of our region’s families are one paycheck away from homelessness and often must make impossible choices like paying for rent or putting food on the table. This is a problem that should concern us all.

Put simply, housing equity is good for public health. This is true with or without a crisis demanding our attention and action. COVID-19 has simply underscored our housing system’s alarming vulnerability, and shows us that we are truly all in this together. Collectively, we are only as healthy as the least sheltered, least cared-for among us.

While much of the future is uncertain, one thing is for sure: we shouldn’t be trying to get back to business as usual. We have an opportunity to respond to the urgency of today in a way that transforms the future. Let’s rise to the occasion by reconsidering outdated policies and use community-driven policy to build a more equitable housing system that works for everyone and protects us all.

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