By: Kevin Zwick
Growing up, having a safe and stable home meant that my sister and I had a sturdy foundation on which to build our lives. We had a place to come home to after school, a place to grow and learn new things, and a place to dream about our futures. Looking back, I didn’t fully realize then how fortunate we were to have a home our parents could afford on their public-school salaries. I think about that all the time now that I have my own family, and we have a safe, stable place to live, where my own kids can grow, learn, and dream. This past year, as we’ve been doing almost everything from home – work, school, soccer, ballet, and our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, just to name a few – it’s become even more clear how much we rely on that safe and stable home for our emotional, physical, and financial health. Home is where all that starts. But when you can’t access a safe, stable, affordable place to call home, all those essential elements of life become exponentially more difficult to manage.
With that in mind, throughout Affordable Housing Month in May, the team at United Way Bay Area was hard at work on our plan to address more deeply one of the toughest issues facing our region, the housing crisis. Over the past two years we have heard from hundreds of community stakeholders that UWBA should be more involved in addressing this issue. In the last few months, we engaged over a hundred housing experts, including those with lived experience of the housing crisis, to help us identify where and how we would be best suited to engage. Now, I am pleased to share that we will be formally adding a Housing Justice initiative to the four pillars that define our work, alongside building pathways to Employment & Careers, meeting Basic Needs, and driving Financial Stability.
For anyone living or working in the Bay Area, the fact that we’re facing a housing crisis is hardly a revelation. Recent studies have shown that nearly 4 in 10 Bay Area households pay more than 30% of their income on housing. Households below the Federal Poverty Level throughout the state pay as much as 76% of their income on housing. High housing costs are much of the reason why a family of four needs to earn an average annual income of $110,366 just to make ends meet in the Bay Area. And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, extremely high rents and major job losses have collided to create a tidal wave of accumulated back rent owed by tenants across the region, estimated at $717 million.
As with all the root causes of poverty we seek to dismantle, the lack of affordable housing is directly connected to and sustained by structural racism. Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color have been systematically denied access to housing opportunities for far too long. One of the most egregious racist housing policies is called “redlining,” through which the federal government guaranteed mortgages and investment in White neighborhoods and denied mortgages and investment in predominately Black neighborhoods. This policy led to many Black families having to buy their homes on contract, which was one of the worst forms of predatory financing. The legacy of these policies is that there is a nearly 30-point gap between White and Black homeownership rates, a major contributor to the racial wealth gap. Other exclusionary housing policies include banning apartments and creating neighborhoods that only allow single-family homes, which are still prevalent today, and are fiercely protected by homeowners who have financially benefited from this injustice.
The results of these policies are clear here in the Bay Area. Black and Latinx residents are half as likely to own homes than White households. Here in San Jose where I live, Black households have the third lowest homeownership rate in the country at 27%, compared to over 61% for white families. To share just one personal anecdote which backs this data up, every house on my street is owned by a family with at least one White adult. All of this is part of a system which continues to widen the already staggering racial wealth gap in our region. For United Way Bay Area, taking this next step forward on the path to Housing Justice aligns with our broader journey to become an anti-racist organization.
Leaders in DC and Sacramento are also proposing new plans to redress this legacy of inequity – providing down payment support to those who have been impacted by redlining; significantly expanding support for renters through universal housing benefits; building affordable housing, especially for those exiting homelessness, without lengthy processes hindered by nimbyism. But there is no way these plans will be realized without all of us pushing for them and looking out for each other across our communities.
Nearly a year ago, I came to United Way Bay Area from the nonprofit affordable housing world inspired by this organization’s 100-year history tackling the root causes of poverty head-on through employment, financial stability, and meeting basic needs. Adding a fourth Housing Justice pillar to this work, addressing the number one issue that puts and keeps Bay Area families in poverty, inspires me even more. And I hope it inspires you to get involved too.
We can’t thrive as a region, people and families can’t thrive, if many of us are in constant fear of eviction with even those fortunate enough to have homes feeling more unstable than ever. The past year has made it absolutely clear that our work for Housing Justice is more urgent than ever. To equitably provide this essential foundation of stability for our neighbors and for our region, we each must start within our own homes. How will you open your doors to being part of the solution? How can we build a more equitable Bay Area together so that we live in a region that we can be even more proud to call home?
Resources to learn more about redlining:
Segregated by Design (video), Mark Lopez & Richard Rothstein
Being Black lowers the value of my home: The legacy of redlining (article), Washington Post
Reducing the Racial Homeownership Gap (article), Urban Institute – Housing Finance Policy Center