Imagine that in five years “affordable housing” is no longer a hot topic in Jefferson County. Some indicators we had fixed the problem would be: businesses and nonprofits are thriving and able to hire a strong and stable workforce, individuals and families are paying an appropriate amount on their monthly housing costs (currently half of renters in Jefferson County are burdened by the cost of their housing), and we have a healthy rental-vacancy-rate of about 6% (it currently hovers around 1%) -— which means there is enough housing for everyone.
Now imagine this current moment was the turning point that made such a future attainable. What would need to have changed during the pandemic and recovery period for that to be possible?
When I asked a friend this question, she responded: “There would be fewer unoccupied houses.” Jefferson County’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan reports that about a quarter of local housing units are usually vacant. Some of those homes are owned by people who vacation here and will not read this. But another portion are owned by people who live locally and have additional units that are either chronically vacant or used as vacation rentals. During our COVID-19 recovery it is possible to imagine a decrease in tourism alongside a clear need for a stable workforce will lead to a flood of vacation rentals being transformed into residential rentals.
Another friend answered, “Some landlords would have to lower rents.” The price of a rental can be touchy. Various factors are at play, from real costs such as maintenance and mortgages to intangible forces like the market, which currently favors landlords. Many local landlords already keep their rentals below market rate, deciding to prioritize the stability and health of their tenants over getting as much return as possible. This is a key moment for landlords to reassess the real cost of a rental versus the value that can be extracted based on limited supply.
My own answer to this question -— what would need to change -— is there would be a collective attitude shift toward the value of housing. We would need to see it as the foundation of a community. The pandemic has exposed how our collective health is interwoven with the health of our ‘essential workers;’ meanwhile the closures and cancellations are highlighting how essential all our workers are — from dental hygienists and construction laborers to teachers and event creators.
We are also internalizing the importance of having a home more strongly than ever. As we recognize all essential workers need homes, perhaps we can come to see housing as a community asset and property owners as the stewards of those assets.
People might act differently under that paradigm, both in the ways mentioned above, as well as owner-financed selling of homes to locals, donating properties to local housing organizations in estate plans and increased financial support of housing agencies. If we want to emerge from this pandemic into an intergenerational, economically and socially diverse, year-round, vibrant community, we have to start building the foundation for that community now.
(Justine Gonzalez-Berg is the Network Weaver for Housing Solutions Network and a trustee for Homeward Bound Community Land Trust.)