The COVID-19 stay-at-home order this spring slowed the pace of the Regional Housing Strategy (RHS), but it did not shut it down. In fact, the pandemic has added an important dimension to the initiative in a world and region that will never be quite the same.
RHS stakeholders have been working toward a shared vision of housing as a platform for equitable growth. Borrowing language from PolicyLink, the stakeholders define the term as economic growth in which “all people can fully participate in generating that growth and fully share in its benefits.” This means “reducing inequality and creating opportunities for all to participate in building a stronger economy.”
Such work has never been more critical as the region tackles new and pressing issues resulting from COVID-19 and the recent protests against racial inequality. Although the global pandemic halted in-person meetings and small group discussions in March, the project team quickly pivoted to a virtual format for its remaining stakeholder meetings, workshops, and informational interviews. To ensure time and space for meaningful dialogue and input, the timeframe for completion of the RHS was revised from June to August, with a rollout planned for September.
The stakeholder meeting on May 15 was intended to factor in the effects of COVID on regional housing initiatives and to seek ways to ensure housing needs are integrated into the economic recovery from the public-health crisis. About 60 people attended – and even joined virtual breakout sessions for brainstorming on these issues.
Density was a topic in several of those breakouts. The high incidence of COVID-19 infection and mortality this spring in New York and New Jersey – particularly the New York City region – gave population density a bad name. Or maybe a worse name, given that density has long been criticized in some circles.
But what does the COVID toll in New York mean for new development in Columbus, where consumer desire for walkable, compact environments has reshaped the way Central Ohio grows? And – wonders Bruce Luecke, president of Homeport – what does that mean for efforts to build additional affordable housing in the region?
“There are higher sensitivities to density due to COVID,” he noted in one breakout. “It could get worse going forward.”
But Carolyn Thurman, deputy planning director for the City of Westerville, tempered those concerns.
“Central Ohio is clearly nowhere near the density of New York City,” she said. “And people certainly love getting out to walk” during the Coronavirus quarantine. “We need to promote the benefits of density in that context.”
Other common COVID-related themes echoed in different breakout groups include: unemployment and loss of income; evictions; homelessness; and further uncertainty in the face of existing problems.
Housing assistance, tenant protections, and eviction prevention were among the proposed actions. Some participants noted that the COVID crisis has made evictions and the fragility of housing stability more evident – creating an opportunity to build ongoing support for housing-assistance programs.
In other groups, discussion focused on how to ensure an equitable supply of housing across the region and also within individual communities. Amid the broad range of sectors, interests, and communities represented among stakeholders, participants have been open to understanding different perspectives.