ST. PAUL -- Most of us consider our home a sanctuary, a shelter and a place of security. But “home” takes on new meaning when it becomes essential to protect health, and the lives of family members and our community.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also shined a spotlight on the fact that not everyone had a safe, stable place to call home before the pandemic hit – and many more find themselves at risk now.
The close connection between health and housing is explicit in this moment. Everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable, are being directed to stay at home to protect health and to ensure our healthcare system can meet and manage the demands it faces.
But even prior to this crisis, many Minnesotans struggled daily with housing instability. According to Minnesota Housing Partnership’s 2019 State of Housing report, more than one in four — or 572,133 — households in our state were cost-burdened by housing. That means they paid more than 30% of their income for housing, making it likely they cut back on necessities like food, education and medicine to pay their rent or mortgage. That number grew by nearly 26,000 households from 2015 to 2017. There is no question it’s growing significantly right now.
As we battle back against the impact of COVID-19, it is essential that health and housing be at the top of our state’s policy concerns.
Proactive solutions to support Minnesotans – like additional funding proposals including $100 million for the Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program (FHPAP) and $500 million in state bonding to address the critical housing shortage our state faced prior to the crisis – need to consider the entire housing ecosystem now and through our economic recovery.
When people can make rent and mortgage payments, landlords are able to maintain housing, and home stability is increased. When tenants can’t pay rent, that creates other problems in the housing ecosystem which causes further destabilization.
In February, the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund hosted the Minnesota Health & Housing Summit as part of its Health and Housing Initiative. More than 150 health care, human services, affordable housing, and philanthropy professionals from national and local organizations gathered to collaborate on strategies and actions both sectors could take to improve health outcomes through strategically aligned investments in stable and affordable housing.
The summit reaffirmed that health, housing, and economic issues are interconnected. The health and economic cases for housing as a priority have been proven repeatedly to enhance health outcomes. Greater investments in housing and alignment of resources will change and save lives.
COVID-19 has exacerbated gaps in the housing safety net that put renters and homeowners at risk. With job loss and income reduction hitting people and families hard, housing instability is rising across the state. The biggest blow hits low-income households, households of color and Indigenous peoples.
People experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and the risk of individual and community spread is exponentially higher at crowded emergency shelters and daytime service centers.
With Minnesota and more than 40 other states implementing stay-at-home orders, we’ve discovered that none of us are truly safe unless we’re all safe. The societal implications of “safe together” have ushered in additional urgency to address our housing needs.
Right now, the wave is still rushing over us. When it passes, what will things look like? Minnesota already had significant housing disparities – what needs to be done to prepare for the recovery while ensuring that we invest and start building an equitable housing system that works for everyone?
Throughout recovery, public, private and nonprofit leaders must work together to improve policies and practices at the federal, state and local levels to align housing and health services to improve health outcomes.
As a leading part of our recovery efforts and beyond, this crisis demands that we embrace the fundamental relationship between home and health, pledge that housing stability is a statewide priority, and fix our broken housing system.
It’s time to act. When we ensure all Minnesotans have stable and safe housing, our recovery will be stronger, more sustainable with greater resilience, and our entire state will benefit for generations to come.
Jeanne Crain is president and CEO of Bremer Financial Corporation and served as co-chair of Minnesota’s Housing Task Force; Warren Hanson is president and CEO of Greater Minnesota Housing Fund; and Dr. Craig Samitt is president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.