Want to recover from the pandemic and end homelessness? Build housing now

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered thousands of hotels across the country, many forever. Experts say tourism won’t come back for five years. And in the new age of Zoom meetings, business travel will never be what it was.

And who knows what will happen to office buildings? So many of us have got used to working from home. Or retail? Malls were already struggling before the pandemic; many won’t make it through this year.

If we do nothing to address this economic distress, these now obsolete properties will be boarded up and abandoned, bringing down the neighborhoods that surround them. They will reverse decades of investment that brought back neighborhoods in the Bronx, Chicago’s South Side and South Central LA. But this time, the distress will also ravage the central business districts of cities large and small.

Meanwhile, more than 700,000 Americans are homeless on any given night. And that number is only expected to grow, as evictions resume in the aftermath of COVID-19.

We can’t afford to let that happen. The pandemic laid bare the enormous social and economic costs of letting so many people remain homeless: cities had to scramble to create (and pay for) thousands of new socially distant shelter beds, and homeless children fell hopelessly behind in their remote schooling.

In New York City, where I live, homelessness and housing instability are so routine that one in ten school children becomes homeless at some point during the school year. Shelters have gone from being a last refuge of the destitute to being the only viable option for many low-income working families — over one-third of households in New York City shelters are now headed by someone with a job.

Newly available, now obsolete properties present our nation’s leaders an opportunity to tackle these two crises simultaneously. We can redevelop distressed buildings to address blight before it begins, and create substantial new affordable housing for homeless and low-income families and individuals. And if we do it quickly, we will jumpstart our nation’s economic recovery, with good paying jobs for Americans of all skill levels.

City and state governments know this, but with the sharp drop in tax revenues, they don’t have the money to do anything about it. Relaxing local zoning laws may allow some owners to convert trophy properties to luxury housing. But without a significant public investment, most buildings will sit vacant.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Congress and the new administration can act now, to include a $44 billion affordable housing conversion initiative in the next COVID relief bill. Appropriated to the National Housing Trust Fund, such an effort would quickly finance the creation of enough permanent affordable housing to finally make a significant dent in our nation’s shameful homeless numbers.

I’ve been working to end mass homelessness in America for 30 years. During that time, my colleagues and I have developed a host of effective interventions that prevent homelessness before it happens, help Americans who do become homeless quickly return to housing, and provide the services and supports necessary for them to remain safely and stably housed.

Despite our many successes, however, homelessness in our high-cost cities is worse than ever. For one obvious reason: housing. We just don’t have the affordable permanent housing we need, and we haven’t been able to build it fast enough to actually end homelessness.

Lack of funding has always been a problem. But in older, densely populated and overbuilt cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington, the lack of sites where we can economically build affordable housing has been as much of a hurdle.

The pandemic has changed all that. With a sharp infusion of federal dollars, tens of thousands of hotels and other distressed commercial properties can be quickly converted into permanent affordable housing, providing new, safe and healthy homes for homeless and other housing-needy families and individuals. Many of these are in high opportunity areas; moving to such neighborhoods has been shown to greatly improve the trajectories of homeless children’s lives.

The infrastructure is there to do it. We have become very good at building and maintaining high quality, permanent affordable housing. By combining private loans and investments with government subsidies that keep rents low, nonprofit and private developers today create cost-efficient affordable housing that remains in good condition not just on the day it opens, but for decades to come. Previous market downturns have allowed similar transformations of old hotels into successful supportive housing residences that have revived neighborhoods and raised surrounding property values.

We have no time to lose. Property prices are down, and owners are desperate to sell. We have the capacity to build, and interest rates are low. Hundreds of thousands of Americans need work, and nothing creates jobs and economic activity better than housing development. Best of all, this investment will finally make a measurable reduction in one of America’s most damaging challenges, homelessness.

We just need Congress and the Biden administration to devote $44 billion to the effort — less than 2 percent of what the total of the next COVID relief bill is likely to be.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to finally create enough affordable housing to meet America’s overwhelming need, and actually do something about homelessness.

What are we waiting for?

Ted Houghton is the president of New York City nonprofit Gateway Housing and former Executive Deputy Commissioner of New York State’s housing agency.

Tags Affordable housing Homelessness

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