By Brian C. Carnahan, Chair, HOTH-CDC Board of Directors
When I consider the neighborhoods in which HOTH-CDC on whose board I serve does its work, I cannot help but think of the phrase “one step forward, two steps back.” These areas once were vibrant with businesses, employment, and owner-occupied housing. With changes in the economy, the neighborhoods also have changed, resulting in increases in crime, unemployment, drug use, and disinvestment. During its 25-year period, Homes on the Hill has worked to increase affordable housing and promote greater investment in Columbus’s Hilltop and other westside neighborhoods of Franklin County. With a growing local, state, and national economy and higher rates of employment, there was reason to be hopeful. Local leaders also were paying attention to the neighborhood. The city developed a comprehensive plan for the neighborhood called Envision Hilltop. It seemed a good starting point to focus resources and commitment to the neighborhoods. Residents and stakeholders had the opportunity for input.
COVID-19 is changing everything. As a member of the HOTH-CDC Board, it causes me great concern. I have been associated with affordable housing since just before 9/11. Both 9/11 and the Great Recession were distressing situations, but neither event – at least in hindsight – was considered one resulting in lasting change. There was a sense that we would regain what was lost. This crisis is different in that it is affecting everyone. Coping with this crisis is straining the resources – financial, mental, and emotional – of many of us. The jockeying for resources will favor those most able to make their case. Neighborhoods that were struggling before COVID-19 may find they have taken many steps back. During a downturn however, the lowest income among us typically are the most affected. Amplifying the negative impact is the fact that many low-income people also are essential workers, employed in service jobs. Many of these also are people of color who face greater risks in the pandemic. Their services proved essential during this time.
Then, while a pandemic was unsettling the world, the nation’s attention turned toward issues of racism and racial justice. We watched as a man was killed by the police, caught on camera. We again were reminded that issues associated with race and racism are not ones easily solved simply through more money in the way more money supports more housing.
As of now, I have more questions than answers, as may you. These questions relate to both the neighborhoods and people that Homes on the Hill serves and the organization itself. It is my experience that it is helpful to know we are not alone, that others are struggling with the same issues. The questions that will need answers include:
- What impact will this crisis have on the neighborhood we serve in the short, middle, and long term? For example, what is the potential impact of evictions? HOTH-CDC’s focus is on neighborhoods with challenges, so it is a given that the neighborhoods served by Homes on the Hill were facing challenges before COVID-19.
- Will we be able to go “back to the future” and implement the plans the city developed, while at the same time addressing new problems or those that are resurgent?
- How will the crisis impact our mission now and in the future?
- In the short term, funds may be available as part of the federal response, but what will the resource constraints mean for our mission long term? What funding will be available for services and development? As a community development corporation that relies on providing housing counseling and building and rehabilitating single family homes, will there be a market for our services?
- Will the economic and social dislocation resulting from the pandemic exacerbate other problems such as drug use and crime?
- How will policing changes impact the neighborhood, and what will resident of the neighborhood have to say about those changes?
While these questions cannot be answered definitively at this point, those of us serving organizations that help those neighborhoods most in need can take some steps. First, we can recognize that focus and attention are fragile and time bound. This means advocates for these neighborhoods must be finding ways to deliver their message to elected officials and policymakers in their communities.
Among mental health-care providers with whom I work through a licensure board, the concept of self-care often is discussed. Those who provide care to others can be as effective only as they are healthy physically and emotionally. The same applies to organizations. Focus on stabilizing our organization while attempting to stabilize the community. Our neighborhoods will be poorly served if community development corporations allow their doors to close. Stability can be aided by being flexible. During a pandemic, certain programs and services may not perfectly fit into your mission, but such opportunities provide a chance to help and a possible source of revenue.
As difficult as it may be to do, continue to plan. This includes working on fundraising plans and recruiting board members. While much of this work may seem more tentative and uncertain than before, it adds value in helping to sort through issues.
Last, remain hopeful. While this time may be different, there is great resilience among the communities served by community development corporations and among those organizations themselves.