Five rapid responses for communities to address the COVID-19 “Housing Apocalypse”

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With the dramatic drop in income for countless people due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people fell behind in making rent or home mortgage payments. The direct payment from the federal government helped many people for a month or two. The emergency short-term measures like mortgage forbearance or restrictions on evictions have pushed back the disaster, but those measures are likely to end soon. Now, cities and rural areas are filled with people who are in a deep financial hole, without cushion, and facing frightening consequences of not making payments. 

On the other side of the table, many landlords are also in a difficult position — especially small-scale property owners who purchased houses as investment properties. Unable to collect rent, they may be falling behind on their own mortgage payments and risk having the properties foreclosed on. Meanwhile, financial institutions that hold the mortgaged fear having those loans default in ways that result in them holding a multitude of properties that few people can afford to live in. And city leaders dread the idea of having even more properties purchased by large out-of-town financial investors who care little about the city or neighborhoods. 

After spending months scanning the globe to find promising innovations to support increases in naturally affordable housing, our team identified five strategies that communities could embrace to greatly reduce the damage of navigating forward through the crisis. 

The five elements of a rapid response for communities are:

1. Establish a Crisis Resolution Center for renters who are unable to pay their rent and for the landlords who are struggling to collect rent.

This solution-oriented center would focus on win-win strategies for the renters and landlords that avoid evictions and help landlords not lose tons of money. We hope to create a shared, national resource kit that would include things like a rental addendum that would allow a lease to be temporarily modified to allow emergency sub-leasing so a renter could sub-lease and add a roommate to help get enough money to pay rent. It would also help people leverage other existing resources and new innovations that are part of the rapid response.

2. Deploy a Community Care Coordination platform to manage individual success plans and connections to resources.

An individual-centered technology platform and a process for helping people clarify their plans, leverage existing resources, manage referrals, and manage training materials can greatly streamline a more efficient and coordinated response to meet the various circumstances for individuals facing challenging circumstances. This would be integrated with the local 211 system and other relevant systems for health, social services, transportation and social supports. 

3. Launch a coordinated home-sharing and room rental program

This would be especially valuable for homeowners who have extra bedrooms — and perhaps have lost a job and need money to help pay their mortgage. It could also allow renters to add a sub-lease for a room (or couch) to earn extra money to help pay the rent. The program would have several elements to reduce the risk and make the process more convenient. This is not about expecting people to invite chronically homeless people to live with them, but rather to facilitate, enhance and reduce the risks of having people rent a room to someone who they might already know and/or who is a person who has hit a temporary hardship

4. Support efficient bartering to make housing improvements

Many people who need housing or who may be unable to pay rent also have time available due to being unemployed or underemployed. They could use that time to earn hour-credits in a Time Exchange that could be used to pay rent. The homeowner or landlord could spend those hour-credits to either have that individual do home improvements or provide other services. 

This could be enhanced by coordinating a Tool Library that would make it easy for people to borrow the tools that they need to be more productive. 

5. Support and enable incremental Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) development

Even an aggressive strategy to expand ADUs would likely take several months to begin adding new housing units to begin to address the needs of the upcoming housing apocalypse. In contrast, this program will move much faster — with a step-by-step approach that starts with flexibility to add temporary, movable ADUs while the permanent ones are being constructed or purchased from a company that manufactures ADUs off-site. The flexible, mobile ADUs will provide some decent housing that is part of a story that people can feel good about: “I’m living in a temporary tiny house as I work with a homeowner to help build a nice, new ADU that I will be renting.” When the permanent ADUs are ready to move into, the temporary ADUs will be repurposed for helping people who are unhoused.

The Urgency

Community leaders can’t spend months talking about strategies or years working to get something going. The timeline needs to be a matter or weeks!   

Fortunately, we’ve learned one thing from the pandemic: rapid response is possible — even if far from perfect. In a matter of days, schools transitioned to online learning and doctors switched to telemedicine. Churches put their services online, and countless businesses made dramatic changes to enable employees to work from home and customers to purchase goods and services while maintaining physical distancing.

Communities need to apply the same urgency in taking rapid steps to minimize the damage of what is being called the COVID-19 housing apocalypse. 

The Population Health Learning Collaborative will host a special 2-part webinar series on July 14th and 28th from 10-11am central time. Register for part one of Rapid Responses for Communities to Address the COVID-19 “Housing Apocalypse” for free. This webinar is part of the larger Innovations in Naturally Affordable Housing series. This Virtual Summit is the ideal place to learn about what is possible and be inspired by innovators who are leading the way. Register here.

Bill Barberg


Bill Barberg

Bill Barberg is the President & Founder of InsightFormation, Inc.   He has a deep background in the field of strategy management for organizations and cross-sector coalitions.   He has trained and