by Jonathan T.M. Reckford*
Even as COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise in many areas around the world, we must look for practical and effective strategies to emerge from and recover from the pandemic’s devastating effects. Housing is going to be key in those efforts – and here are five steps we can take in that direction.
1. Focus on healthy housing
The pandemic has demonstrated to the world the deep connection between health and living conditions, but in far too many instances, homes that are supposed to be a refuge from disease have actually made people sicker. Leilani Farha, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, has said that housing is the frontline defence in the fight against COVID-19.
A report transmitted by the Secretary-General at the 75th UN General Assembly pointed to adequate housing as even more critical during the pandemic. In the report, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the new Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, says: “In the context of COVID-19, having no home, lacking space for physical distancing in overcrowded living areas or having inadequate access to water and sanitation has become a death sentence, handed out predominantly against poor and marginalized communities.”
We must make it a priority to create opportunities for more people to live in healthy homes. Limited access to fundamental infrastructure related to water and sanitation can make health conditions worse. That certainly exacerbated the impact of COVID-19 and added to preexisting vulnerabilities. Understanding that frequent handwashing with soap can stop the spread of many diseases, Habitat for Humanity and other organizations are increasing investments in water, sanitation and hygiene projects in many communities worldwide.
Beyond the healthcare emergency, the global pandemic has created a devastating economic crisis as well. The ripple effects have exacerbated the housing crisis, which was desperate long before COVID-19. For both emerging economies and more mature markets, creating additional opportunities for housing that is safe, healthy and affordable is going to be key to a stronger global economy when we can declare that we are past the pandemic.
2. Take action to move forward on the critical housing targets in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)
Part 1 of SDG 11, which aims to “ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums”, is one of the targets that was losing ground even before the impact of the pandemic could be measured. The public, private and social sectors must work together and take action to improve housing conditions for more people if we are to help communities heal and recover. Through our targeted advocacy campaign we have developed several resources, including the SDG 11 Policy Brief, to outline recommendations for stakeholders at all levels.
3. Raise awareness of housing as a significant contributor to national economies
In a report commissioned by Habitat for Humanity, researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Pennsylvania found that emerging economies struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic may be significantly underestimating how much their housing sectors contribute to the gross domestic product and, as a result, may be missing opportunities for economic and social revival.
When the researchers included often-overlooked components of the housing market, such as the incremental building that prevails in the informal sector, they found that housing actually accounts for up to 16.1% of GDP on average across 11 low- and middle-income countries that were analyzed. That places housing on a par with sectors such as manufacturing that often draw far more attention in economic recovery plans.
Yet of the 196 countries that have developed an economic response to the pandemic, only 22 (or 11%) have explicitly included housing components in their plans, according to the International Monetary Fund.
4. Employ specific housing finance strategies to help low-income families
Having access to housing microfinance funds is helping families increase their resilience. A recent Habitat-commissioned rapid assessment of 289 microfinance client households in the Philippines reveals that families who have had home-based income during the pandemic were much more likely to have used their loans for home improvements, suggesting that upgraded shelter better enables people to earn income from home.
Inclusive financial interventions in the housing sector, particularly through construction or rental assistance, can stimulate economies while also improving the wellbeing of families through healthier housing conditions.
5. Provide relief for families at risk of being evicted or of losing their homes
In the US, the unprecedented loss of jobs and wages during the COVID-19 crisis has taken a heavy toll on renters and homeowners alike. One of the latest models for recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is “less-than” shaped. It emphasizes that the economy is great for half the world — for those who have assets, who can work from home and who have knowledge-based jobs. But the situation is dire for many service workers who are at risk both in terms of access to healthcare and economic vulnerability.
So far, most attention has been given rightfully to renters at risk of eviction, but millions of homeowners (many of them who are cost burdened by housing expenses) are also at risk of losing their homes due to the economic crisis.
We must advocate for policies that prevent eviction and foreclosure before they happen. We must continue to invest in both emergency rental assistance and foreclosure prevention to help ensure that families can stay in their homes as we work to emerge from all the challenges of 2020.
Housing can make or break a recovery, so we must continue efforts to help low- and middle-income families improve their housing situations. Investments in healthy, secure housing have greater-than-expected benefits, creating jobs, generating incomes and helping alleviate the overcrowding that makes communities more vulnerable to threats such as COVID-19.
The world is anxiously waiting on medical breakthroughs that will allow us to resume more normal lives, but we must take steps in the meantime to create and sustain healthy communities. Creating more housing solutions is a critical element in that process.
*CEO, Habitat for Humanity International
**first published in: www.weforum.org