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A healthy recovery calls for social housing

John Lloyd and Lydia Lowe

As the graph of new COVID-19 cases in the state begins to trend downward, our public conversation now shifts to the questions of reopening and how we balance health and economic aspects of recovery. But, if it is too soon to toss away our masks and social distancing practices, it is equally unwise to return the economy to business as usual.

Business as usual got us into this mess in the first place. An estimated 48 million U.S. households lived in unaffordable housing before the pandemic, and a majority of the lowest-income renters are people of color or single mothers. From 2000 to 2014, rents rose 13% while household incomes declined by 7%. Now, a mind-boggling 40 million people are unemployed!

We appreciate that the commonwealth has enacted a strong moratorium on evictions and foreclosures in order to keep people in their homes during the COVID quarantine.  But what actions can we take now to address the long-term housing crisis?

The core principle of our current housing system is protection of the private market, with 96.3% of the nation’s housing stock in private hands. Only 3.7% is made up of different forms of social housing ⎯ public housing, nonprofit housing, cooperatives and community land trusts. In contrast, Hong Kong’s 10-year housing plan calls for a 60/40 split between social and private housing development. Only a quarter of the housing stock in Vienna is privately owned for profit. Some 40 percent of housing in the United Kingdom was social housing before privatization whittled it down to about 9 percent today.

The biggest U.S. homeowners are the banks, who are the actual landlords behind most who consider themselves homeowners. We were witness to this precarity during and following the crash of 2008, when some 15 million homes were foreclosed. Working families lost their homes, banks received a $700 billion bailout, and speculative investors scooped up more properties. Let’s not repeat this mistake.

How can we emerge from the pandemic with an approach to housing that prioritizes human needs over speculative profit? This is not some utopian dream; the means to house the nation lies within our reach.

Boston is home to one of the most successful community land trusts in the country. In the Dudley neighborhood triangle, community ownership of the land keeps 226 homes permanently affordable, through a deed restriction, and provides security in times of disinvestment and gentrification alike.  The Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network now has seven community land trusts in Boston, Somerville and Chelsea. Using collective ownership and control of land, members are working to stabilize working-class communities of color, combat displacement and organize for democratic governance of healthy neighborhoods. We believe the growth of the CLT model is an opportunity to address the root causes of wealth inequality; together, we seek to drive systemic change and support our communities’ health and well-being.

On the policy front, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar has proposed the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, H. 6515, which would not only ensure that renters and homeowners emerge from the crisis debt-free, but also establish a buyout fund to turn foreclosed and at-risk properties into social housing instead of speculative portfolios.

Here in Massachusetts, Sen. Brendan Crighton and Rep. Dan Cullinane have proposed a Tenant First Right of Refusal, H 1260/S 786, which would require that an owner of a large multi-family building provide tenants the right to make a first offer and to match a third-party purchase offer. Tenants of limited means could partner with a nonprofit to preserve their homes. Boston and Somerville already have programs to help nonprofits preserve occupied homes, but more funding is needed. A proposal at the State House would allow cities and towns to raise funds for affordable housing through a real estate transfer fee.

The pandemic has done us the service of exposing what is wrong with the current system, while pushing us to think nimbly and creatively to save lives. Now we need to exercise the political will to seek longer-term solutions and expand strategies that we know work, like the community land trust model.

John Lloyd is executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which launched Boston’s first community land trust in 1988. Lydia Lowe is executive director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust, established in 2015.

Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network:Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Boston Neighborhood Community Land Trust, Chinatown Community Land Trust,Comunidades Enraizadas de Chelsea, Dudley Neighbors Inc., Highland Park Community Land Trust, Somerville Community Land Trust, Urban Farming Institute Community Land Trust

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