The Importance of Technology During Crisis

It’s one of the seminal moments in our collective history. In the months and years to come, people will recall how they hunkered down and stayed safe at home during the coronavirus pandemic. But too many people don’t have a secure place to call home. These are the people hit especially hard by a devastating disruption such as a pandemic or other natural disaster.

The NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (NAR) has always been at the forefront in protecting homeowners and continues to provide strong leadership, grants and resources during these current challenges.

San Diego Area REALTORS® Help Develop Website for the Homeless

In San Diego, collaborations, meticulous research, and the drive to roll up sleeves and get the work done led to the development of ECAssist.org — a website that serves as a clearing house of vital information for East San Diego County’s homeless and vulnerable citizens. The site provides links to resources concerning shelter, public assistance, food resources, healthcare and veterans’ services. The site is searchable by community and updated regularly.

ECAssist.org went live in 2019 and response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Members of the Pacific Southwest Association of REALTORS® (PSAR) had been attending the East County Homeless Task Force (ECHTF) meetings for two years trying to get our arms around the issues that contribute to homelessness,” explained Tracy Morgan Hollingworth, PSAR’s government affairs director. “After a couple of years of collecting information about the homeless in East County and the resources that we identified that were available to both the homeless and borderline homeless, we thought it would be great to try to develop a phone app that would give the homeless details about where to find and access services.”  

PSAR folks, working with ECHTF and the El Cajon Collaborative, discovered that a majority of homeless individuals had access to cell phones and the internet. But developers also learned that a phone app was likely not the best way to reach their intended audience because of difficulties in app distribution. So, plans were shifted to creating a website. PSAR received a NAR grant to help with the development and maintenance of the website and, with that, ECAssist.org was on its way to becoming a reality. The next task was populating the site and the job of gathering resource information was massive. Organizers sought out some willing help.

“We tapped into a local community college to ask students to help us research where all of the food pantries and churches were that offer meals and food banks in East San Diego County,” Morgan Hollingworth said. “The El Cajon Collaborative wanted to break out the resources by different communities in East San Diego so the website is searchable by city or community names and by the types of services located in those areas.”

East San Diego County covers a vast area of smaller cities, unincorporated communities and rural expanses. ECAssist.org benefits many sectors of the area’s diverse population. The website can translate into dozens of languages and includes links to useful information that might be accessed by a variety of people. That information includes colleges and adult schools, youth and teen services and mental health assistance.

The website went live in 2019 and response has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, its use has expanded since it was first launched. What began as an online resource to help connect the homeless with essential community resources has become a lifeline for not only the homeless but for vulnerable groups throughout the area. Nonprofit and government agencies recognize its value, especially during this time of pandemic.

“The County Board of Supervisors approved several million dollars in county funding to help connect the homeless to more resources through ECAssist.org and to also avoid being the most recent victims of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Morgan Hollingworth said. “But it’s not just the homeless who are using it, it’s become a lifesaver for so many people at risk.”

National Organizations Provide Online Resources

Mark Fenton, a nationally recognized public health and planning expert, adjunct associate professor at Tufts University, and Centers for Disease Control consultant, says the pandemic is a time to look beyond the familiar to identify and assist those in need of help. “We can’t look at the pandemic only through the lens of the wealthy and white. In public health we know that social determinants of health are heavily biased based on economics and race. We need to take a lesson and rethink.”

Many national organizations have added resources to their websites to address the coronavirus.

Many national organizations have added resources to their websites to address the coronavirus, especially as it pertains to the homeless and housing insecurity. The National Housing Conference (NHC), The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, to name a few, have all added COVID-19 resource areas to their websites. NAR has aggregated many public-agency links at https://www.nar.realtor/coronavirus-resources-for-property-owners. Resource links include guidance on community planning and action implementation that serve the homeless and most vulnerable populations. The NHC website links to a plethora of resources for a wide array of possible users, including homeless service providers, homeowners, single-family mortgage lenders, renters, rental property owners, multifamily financers and state and local governments.  

State and local United Ways provide information on a host of social services through their 211-phone service. Nearly 95 percent of American’s have access to 211. Users can search online by zip code, city or state to connect with their local United Way 211 and learn where to find services. United Way Worldwide reports its 211 system usually handles about 12 million calls a year across the United States, but as of the beginning of April, it was fielding as many as 75,000 calls a day.

The coronavirus pandemic has illustrated stark inequities in access to services and resources for the homeless and those living with housing insecurity and have illustrated the necessity of being better prepared for the future.

In her recent article entitled America’s inequitable housing system is completely unprepared for coronavirus, Jenny Schuetz, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program, Future of the Middle Class Initiative of the Brookings Institution, points out that “sheltering at home requires good housing” but that isn’t possible for large and diverse swaths of the population. More than a half million Americans are homeless, with roughly 60 percent living in temporary shelters or doubled up with family and 40 percent with no shelter whatsoever. Approximately 20 percent of the nation’s poorest families spend more than half of their monthly income on rent and are at constant risk of homelessness. For many of these families it’s a challenge just to connect with information and available assistance.

“For far too long, policymakers at all levels of government have failed to provide decent-quality, stable, and affordable housing to millions of Americans,” Schuetz writes. “In COVID-19, we’re only starting to see the devastating consequences of that failure.”

Emergency Help to Keep People in Their Homes

The primary government response concerning the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on housing has been to provide far-reaching, but temporary protections to help keep people in their homes. On March 18, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued an immediate 60-day foreclosure and eviction moratorium for single-family homeowners with FHA-insured mortgages. The federal moratorium covers the roughly 8 million single-family homeowners with FHA loans — primarily used by lower-income homebuyers who often can’t afford a traditional down payment. Many state and local governments issued similar eviction and foreclosure moratoriums.

“These actions will allow households who have an FHA-insured mortgage to meet the challenges of COVID-19 without fear of losing their homes and help steady market concerns,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson at the time the moratorium was issued. “The halting of all foreclosure actions and evictions for the next 60 days will provide homeowners with some peace of mind during these trying times.”

That eviction and foreclosure moratorium also applies to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans for single-family dwellings. Some of those homeowners may also qualify for payment assistance through a direct loan program. The USDA also provides up to 12 months in reduced or suspended payments for some qualified borrowers who were in default or faced immediate default of their loans. Like the HUD program, the USDA moratorium extends to renters. The USDA reports it may be possible for renters who use Rural Tenant Development Vouchers to increase their voucher amounts and it has relaxed some regulations affecting those who receive rental assistance.

The USDA’s website links to numerous resource guides, which include factsheets, information on funding opportunities, notifications for various stakeholders and frequently asked questions. One online resource provides links to a variety of information in the areas of technical assistance, training and management; financial assistance; general state and local resources for a variety of groups, including businesses; ag producers and ranchers; local, county and state governments; nonprofits; cooperatives; and individuals and households.  

There is also assistance for investors and developers working on projects in Qualified Opportunity Zones. The zones were created by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and are designed to stimulate economic development and job creation in designated distressed communities across the country by providing tax cuts to investors. Opportunity Zones aren’t specifically designed for the development of affordable housing, but are supposed to provide an economic boost to underserved communities. Disaster declarations as a result of COVID-19 have extended deadlines for investments related to Opportunity Zones. This means investors will likely be able to delay meeting some required development and tax obligations.

Local governments and service providers from coast to coast are opening temporary homeless shelters to try to meet social distancing guidelines. Shelters are opening in convention and community centers and hotels. But not all of the homeless want to enter a shelter and unique methods are being used to make sure people continue to have access to services. In East San Diego County, police distribute rubber wrist bands emblazoned with the ECAssist.org web address to the homeless who chose not to enter an emergency shelter but still seek services.

Looking to the Future

Once the immediate pandemic threat has passed, local, state and federal agencies and governments will need to turn their attention from crisis management to preparedness. A foreclosure and eviction moratorium provides two months of housing security to many thousands, but long-term housing solutions are essential if communities are to be prepared for the next major disruption.

Fenton says now is the time to consider the future. “People I work with are thinking differently. I think this is a huge moment of opportunity. But it is a finite time and we can’t let the window of opportunity close. The big question is can we turn our experiences into collective action. Housing needs must be considered in all future planning.”

Sound planning will depend on dedicated and visionary leadership from all sectors — public and private. Government agencies, service providers and businesses will need to work together to ensure that the country’s most vulnerable individuals and families have access to adequate and equitable housing. NAR and its 1.4 million REALTORS® across the country will continue to lead the way in helping people find, afford and protect their homes.

Tracy Morgan Hollingworth sums it up. “A lot of organizations have gotten very organized during the pandemic in sharing more resource information and that has helped each community to weather through the stay-at-home orders. I’m hoping various communities will continue to try to keep an emergency preparedness plan in place for other disasters that often occur with earthquakes, floods, etc., and help local residents to understand where they can go to get assistance when these disasters occur. ECAssist.org will continue to assist both the homeless and near homeless [in East San Diego County] for some time into the future.”

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A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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