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What the COVID-19 Pandemic Can Tell Us About Housing Justice and Climate Resilience

by Jay Wu

Believe it or not, home purchasers are on a buying spree. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, home sales during the pandemic were higher than they’ve been since 2006, the housing boom that preceded the Great Recession. For millennials earning stable incomes, low mortgage rates and reduced spending opportunities during the lockdown have been a boon for building wealth and settling into homes. But for those with precarious income, particularly people of color, we see a completely different reality—millions of Americans are behind on rent and mortgages, threatened with evictions and foreclosures. 

Low-income communities and communities of color suffer on many levels from the lack of affordable and quality housing during times of crisis. Notably, quality housing is an investment, both in the straightforward sense, as an asset that is expected to increase in value over time, and the indirect sense, as a location that can provide access to quality education, jobs and public services. Thus, opposing trends in housing for precarious workers, who are disproportionately people of color, and those with the means to invest in real estate, has troubling ramifications for racial disparities far into the future. 

As we enter a new era of increased climate disasters, economic disparities linked to housing will only grow. In counties frequently damaged by natural disasters over a 14-year period, one study indicates that white households increased their wealth by an average of $126,000, while Black and Latinx households lost $27,000 and $29,000. A number of factors contribute to these instances of glaring inequality. For example, households of color are more likely to reside in high-risk floodplains. Once disaster hits, complex application processes make receiving federal assistance difficult for low-income homeowners and renters, disproportionately homeowners of color. Meanwhile, cheap buildings become expensive during disasters. During the 2021 Texas winter storm, insufficient insulation left low-income residents in dangerously cold conditions, followed by steep electricity bills and high sums of property damage from burst pipes

Resilience is a common buzzword in the sustainability field, referring to a community’s ability to prepare for, absorb, and adapt to major disturbances. However, we often discuss resilience only in terms of physical infrastructure, improving fail-safe designs and redundancies of our energy, water, and food systems. We need to rethink our governance systems as well. By excluding marginalized communities from decision-making, we inevitably miss crucial insights from those who experience disasters most profoundly. Thus our current systems fail time and time again to provide for the most vulnerable, especially during times of crisis. 

That’s why Lia Heintjes, Chelsea Encababian, and I are studying resilient Community Land Trusts for our Sustainability in the Urban Environment Capstone. Community Land Trusts are nonprofit organizations that purchase real estate so they can keep it affordable for generations, offering ground leases to residents to functionally separate the land from the housing built on top of the land. They are governed by an elected board, usually a mix of CLT residents, community residents, and public representatives. By putting decision-making in the hands of low-income residents, CLTs can be important nodes for building political and technical capacity. In other words, not only does a transformative CLT empower members to engage in decision-making for the CLT itself, but also for the community at large. There are in fact many examples of CLTs diving into participatory housing development—Boston Chinatown’s CLT, has been involved in creating Chinatown’s master plan every 10 years with Boston’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council. In this way, CLTs can be a humane, stable, and democratic alternative to our discriminatory housing market.

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