Last month the Affordable Housing Collaborative completed a series of stakeholder interviews to kick-off a community education campaign about our county’s affordable housing crisis. Conversations with local organizations were on the calendar. Then came COVID-19, meetings ceased and we joined the world in fighting this public health crisis.
It is clear, however, that we cannot effectively fight the coronavirus without taking seriously the affordable housing shortage infecting our city. As of Feb. 1, there were almost 261,000 households in El Paso County. Of those, over 82,000 were housing cost-burdened (spending 30% or more of their income on housing) and over 34,000 were extremely cost-burdened (spending 50% or more of their income on housing). And there were more than 1,500 people in Colorado Springs experiencing homelessness right before COVID-19 emerged.
For those who are cost-burdened on housing, staying healthy is more difficult. People who spend more than 50% of their income on housing spend, on average, 41% less on food than similar households that are not cost-burdened. Studies from Washington State show that housing insecure residents are twice as likely to report poor health or delay medical appointments because of costs. And for those living in shelters, social distancing is nearly impossible. A lack of affordable housing makes our communities less healthy, and in turn, more susceptible to coronavirus.
And the arrow goes both ways — the necessary social distancing and economic shutdown caused by coronavirus is making it harder for people to afford their rent or mortgage. As of April 18, almost 280,000 Coloradans had filed for unemployment benefits, and we can expect that number to grow.
Research from the Federal Reserve shows that 4 in 10 Americans would have difficulty affording a sudden $400 expense, suggesting that many of the Coloradans who have lost their jobs won’t have savings to rely on during an extended shut down. If we don’t take the necessary steps to help people stay in their homes, both the housing and COVID-19 crises will get dramatically worse.
Thankfully, state and local governments have recently signaled that they understand the connections between health and housing.
On March 20, Gov. Jared Polis issued a “suggested moratorium” on evictions, urging local officials to pause the practice. El Paso County courts went a step further, ordering the sheriff’s office to stop enforcing evictions. This is hugely important. We applaud the court for taking this step as a reprieve for housing-insecure families. Our public health crisis demands that people stay in their homes; it is imperative that our government ensures that they are able to do so.
But important as eviction and foreclosure moratoriums are, they are short-term fixes.
Once they are lifted, many tenants who lost income due to COVID-19 will be unable to make up for missed rent payments, immediately putting them at risk of eviction. Now is the time to collectively plan for this moment by pairing the cancellation of rent and mortgage payments with rental assistance and loan deferments. In doing so, we can prevent tenants from losing their homes, landlords from losing their businesses, and banks from losing their revenue, but only if we are willing to invest in our community. If we aren’t, our affordable housing crisis will worsen, exacerbating our present and future public health crises along with it.
Local, state, and federal leaders are beginning to discuss these policies. The Denver City Council recently called on Gov. Polis to cancel rent and mortgage payments statewide, and a bill introduced in Congress would do the same nationally, in addition to allocating funds to cover losses for landlords and creditors.
Here in El Paso County, we should support these efforts, and consider every local action possible to ease the burden on renters and homeowners alike. Even after COVID-19 subsides, we need an all-of-the-above approach to solve our affordable housing crisis. It is time to re-examine the policy structure that got us here in the first place. We must change zoning laws, increase tenants’ rights, generate more public sources of funding for affordable housing, and much more.
Only then can we be truly prepared for our next public health disaster. Housing policy is health policy.
Liam Reynolds, and Max Kronstadt contributed to this column.
BJ Scott is the former CEO at Peak Vista Community Health Centers and inaugural trustee of Colorado Springs Health Foundation and co-founder of the Affordable Housing Collaborative, a project of Age Friendly Colorado Springs’ Housing Domain. Elam Boockvar-Klein, Liam Reynolds, and Max Kronstadt, are the co-founders of the Colorado Springs Pro-Housing Partnership, a coalition that promotes local policies to bolster our affordable housing. Follow them on Facebook (@ColoradoSpringsProHousingPartnership) or Twitter (@COSPHP).