With the dramatic drop in income for countless people due to the COVID pandemic, millions have fallen behind in their rent or mortgage payments. The federal government helped for a month or two. But now our cities and rural areas are filled with people in deep financial trouble, facing frightening consequences of not being able to make their monthly housing payments. 

Landlords and lenders are also in difficult positions 

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 foreclosure. Meanwhile, the banks holding those loans fear default and their ending up holding a bunch of property that no one can afford to live in. City leaders dread the idea of having even more properties purchased by large out-of-town financial investors who have no interest in the city or its neighborhoods. 

Five strategies that communities could embrace to greatly reduce the damage of navigating forward through the crisis. It’s a scenario that’s playing out all over the world. Here in St. Helena, the economics of the COVID pandemic will affect every demographic along the food chain—renter, property owner, landlord and lender. 

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 sublease 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 streamline a 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

  • Invaluable for homeowners who have extra bedrooms and maybe lost a job and need money to help pay their mortgage. 
  • Renters could 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 about facilitating and reducing 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. Deploy 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 aggressive expansion of ADUs would likely take several months to begin adding new housing units to address the needs of the upcoming housing apocalypse. 

  • This program will move much faster. 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 timeline is short: We can’t do focus groups or more research

  • The timeline needs to be a matter of weeks! 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 moved their services online. Businesses enabled their teams to to work from home and offered their services virtually. Customers purchased 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 housing apocalypse. We’ve upped the ante on the housing crisis. It’s up to us. We could do this. 

Our Town St. Helena. Committed to utilizing innovative and entrepreneurial thinking and tactics to create a range of housing opportunities in our community. Get involved and/or Donate.

From an article by Bill Barberg,


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