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Sustainable Communities

Housing & Home

March 22, 2021
Shaun-Dae Clark
Shaun-Dae Clark

Research Associate, Sustainable Communities Initiative

Kate Davidoff, Ph.D
Kate Davidoff, Ph.D.

Director, Sustainable Communities Initiative

For over a year, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the globe while many of us were at home. In the U.S., millions of people lost their jobs and over 500,000 lost their lives, with communities of color disproportionately bearing the brunt of the virus and the resulting economic fallout. The pandemic has affected virtually every facet of life, and notably it has required us to reimagine the idea of home. The home has been transformed into a doctor’s office, school, child care center, and workplace. And for many, this shift has only exacerbated the challenges of living in underserved communities with limited access to stable, affordable housing.

Through Fannie Mae’s Sustainable Communities Innovation Challenge, we have partnered with 13 organizations across the country to develop collaborative, cross-sector approaches to addressing the nation’s affordable housing issues, while increasing access to opportunities for employment, education, and health care. Our partners and their clients adapted to the pandemic as they lived, learned, and worked from home, exposing both the benefits and limitations of subsisting in a technology-based virtual world. Many of these changes will outlast the pandemic, and COVID-19 has amplified the vital role that health, education, and economic mobility service providers play in sustaining communities, improving housing, and creating better life outcomes.

Staying healthy at home

The pandemic has starkly illustrated how community conditions are directly tied to disparities in health outcomes, with virus deaths much more likely to occur among people of color and those living in crowded and poor-quality housing. Only 20% of a population’s health is shaped by clinical care, whereas 50% is determined by social and economic factors and the physical environment. For example, where you live can determine both your likelihood of experiencing asthma and your access to effective asthma treatment.

The significant barriers to telehealth we identified in the past vanished overnight. People became used to joining video meetings. We also
suddenly had a workforce at our disposal dedicated to telehealth, and it became a very important way to make sure families are still connected to their doctors and medical care.

Housing Home Dr Fox

With support from Fannie Mae’s Innovation Challenge, Children’s National Hospital’s IMPACT DC Asthma Clinic launched a telehealth program in partnership with Washington, D.C.-area nonprofit Yachad. It allows providers to conduct virtual home assessments with smartphones to identify substandard housing conditions that trigger asthma in children, such as mold or pest infestations. When toxins are found in the home, Yachad provides remediation, repair, and weatherization services, with the intent of reducing asthma hospitalizations.

The program targets underserved families in majority Black neighborhoods in the city, where there is a disproportionate share of older and poorly constructed or maintained housing stock that can create or exacerbate health conditions. Program officials seek to address one of the key determinants of childhood asthma through improving housing conditions.

Staying home is undoubtedly the best defense against the spread COVID-19, but it can also potentially intensify unhealthy environments. “When you spend more time in the home environment, there’s more wear and tear,” said Janet Phoenix, Healthy Homes Program Manager at Yachad. “A lot of housing that families were already living in was overcrowded, and housing deteriorates more rapidly when more people are living there,” she added.

Given the early investment in the virtual visits, the program could continue to operate during the pandemic, though the remediation services were limited to ensure the safety of the workers and families. “Virtual home visits [have been] a godsend,” said Audrey Lyon, Executive Director of Yachad. “We thought it would just be saving us some time by making it easier to connect. Now this is a lifesaver, which gives us accurate information without risking the health of families and Yachad workers.”

When Washington, D.C. resident Tamika DeBose noticed that the combination of getting a cat, installing carpet, and seasonal changes were flaring her son’s asthma, IMPACT DC was there to assist. “When I emailed, they sent everything. They sent a vacuum for the carpet and even asthma casing for his mattress and pillow.” Her son’s condition dramatically improved in two weeks. “I feel comfortable reaching out to them and asking about anything,” said DeBose.

Housing Home Tamika and Son

Tamika DeBose and her son Xjazieur outside their home in Washington, D.C.

Learning at home

As the pandemic required schools to close abruptly, where people live not only became a primary indicator of school quality, the home became the classroom itself. High-speed internet was once seen as a gateway to opportunity, yet during the pandemic it became a requirement for access to even basic levels of education. School systems nationwide prioritized meeting students’ technology needs as well as other social, nutritional, and mental health needs. Over 18 million people across the country lack broadband access, and the gaps in access to technology mirror similar patterns of racial and income disparities in housing, with those families living in lower-quality homes less likely to have access to the digital resources they need for distance learning.

We did not panic during this pandemic; we pivoted with a focus on education as an authentic virtual or remote-learning experience.

As part of a Fannie Mae partnership, the school system launched the “Safer Together Green Housing” initiative, a model for developing a dual-curriculum CTE program focused on affordable housing and green construction. The program seeks to build a pipeline of skilled trade workers to help address the local labor shortage. Students work directly with contractors and other technicians to rehabilitate local homes using energy-efficient building techniques, acquiring valuable, in-demand skills in the construction sector.

While the pandemic halted the program’s on-site learning activities, educators swiftly adjusted to teach hands-on technical skills virtually. Even with advancements in virtual instruction, educators are eager to once again provide at least some in-person services. “We are teaching construction and electrical, and they are all hands-on skills. You can only teach so much without it,” said electrical technology and carpentry instructor Bruce Lockwood.

Elizabeth Cook, a 16-year-old student in the program, says the virtual platform has limitations. “It is difficult to learn virtually. I don’t like learning by the workbooks — I want to physically be there, learning carpentry. I want to go to school in person. I miss the interaction.”

“I’m looking forward to our students safely and gradually coming back to schools for in-person instruction,” added Dr. Chillis. “Our signature career academies thrive based on face-to-face interactions. These state-of-the-art spaces have pathways in counseling and mental health, artificial intelligence, drone technology, and pharmacy tech. Spaces that create real-world opportunities and talent pipelines to fill high-wage, high-skill, in-demand fields that will directly impact the workforce and economic development.”

Working at home

Like health care and education, access to economic opportunity is connected to where you live. Sustainable communities include access to job training programs, transportation, and high-quality jobs. COVID-19 upended traditional notions of work: Those who could worked from home, while scores of essential front-line workers, a majority of whom were women, most likely to be of color and in low-wage jobs, continued to go to work in often risky conditions.

Everything has gone to virtual platforms, but clients don’t have the capacity to maintain their homes, stay healthy, and find employment at the same time.

Fannie Mae’s National Housing Survey results from Q2 and Q3 2020 show that “lower-income households, renters, and [racial] minorities are two to three times more likely to be concerned about their ability to pay their bills. They are also significantly more likely to be concerned about job loss and to have experienced job loss or furlough during the pandemic.”

Fannie Mae partnered with Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, to offer workforce training for residents of affordable housing in nearby neighborhoods. The goal was to provide a pathway for entry-level jobs in the hospital and with other local employers. Though COVID-19 initially limited their job training and support offerings, Nationwide reorganized to provide services virtually with workforce development partner Goodwill Columbus. They did intake sessions by phone, email, and text; provided customized options to meet the specific needs of program participants; and kept up to date with the rapidly changing employment environment.

Housing Home Nationwide Childrens Hospital

Columbus, OH residents participate in an online workforce training session organized by Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

However, the reliance on technology prevented many from accessing support. The number of participants in Nationwide’s workforce training program has declined significantly, and many of those who have been able to participate have struggled due to unfamiliarity with virtual platforms. Those who are the least able to access technology are likely to need it the most.

“Basic computer skills are one of the big things we teach,” said Angela Hampton, a career consultant with Goodwill Columbus. “You can’t teach someone virtually on a computer when they don’t know how to use a computer. We sometimes ask them if they have a son or daughter who can help them navigate. We’ve even gotten 9-year-olds to help their parents, which is a big shift. It took a minute for us to brainstorm and figure that out.”

The future of home

Communities of color, people with low incomes, and those in unstable housing have consistently been the most negatively impacted by the pandemic — mentally, physically, and financially. The inequalities of today did not begin and will not end with COVID-19, and the pandemic underscores the importance of quality, affordable housing in sustainable communities. Fannie Mae and the Sustainable Communities Initiative continue to support these organizations and the important work they do to create housing stability, while improving outcomes in health, fostering opportunities in education, and forging paths to economic mobility.

The home is the center of the family life. Without home you can’t eat, sleep, go to school, celebrate holidays and birthdays. This pandemic highlighted the importance of having a home and has exacerbated the need for high-quality homes for all.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of articles from Fannie Mae examining the critical elements of sustainable communities in times of crisis and recovery. Read the first article in the series: Housing & Partnerships.