Thomas Adams: If we care about justice and repair, we have to care about housing

4March 2021

Thomas Adams: If we care about justice and repair, we have to care about housing

There are reasons racial disparities persist today, and these inequities all have to do with policies and the way society was built. History matters, and if we want to make our communities better for everyone, we have to confront the issues that got us here — and then take action.

Housing justice is at the heart of my profession — I lead housing and services at CommonBond Communities, a nonprofit that provides affordable rental homes and support services for people with low incomes. At CommonBond, we believe housing justice is directly tied to racial justice. Whether rented or owned, your home is the foundation for everything else. It impacts your health, educational opportunities, ability to build capital through generations, and so much more.

But housing justice is also deeply personal: the St. Paul neighborhood in which my relatives were allowed to buy a home was dictated by the color of their skin.

In part due to housing discrimination and segregation, people of color in Minnesota are twice as likely to live in poverty, and far less likely than white people to own a home. People of color are also significantly more impacted by COVID-19 and recent economic shifts — which further widens disparities. Given this disproportionate impact, the ability to support low-income residents in remaining in their homes is as much an issue of justice as it is of community health and stability.

One of the greatest opportunities for accumulating wealth comes through home ownership. And when housing is affordable, saving for a down payment becomes much more possible. In fact, since early 2018, we’ve seen 165 households leave our rental communities because they bought a house. It’s not right for everyone, and for many CommonBond residents, maintaining stable rental housing is the best path forward. But because of predatory lending, redlining, and covenant communities, large percentages of our community — usually people of color — have been blocked from opportunities for homeownership, and thus from growing related wealth and capital over time. I know this from my family’s firsthand experience.

After fighting in WWII, my family members were denied the GI Bill several times. Once it was received, they moved us into our beloved Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, after being denied the opportunity to buy a home in Highland Park because of skin color. The difference in appreciation of home values in those neighborhoods over 50 years is staggering, and has a clear impact on wealth disparity. Your zip code and how you reside have a strong correlation to your life trajectory — it all starts with housing.

And now, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the ongoing link between racism and housing — including the critical role stable housing plays in protecting the health and well-being of every person in the community. We’re working to ensure CommonBond residents most impacted by COVID-19 remain housed, and almost a year into the pandemic, we’re maintaining support for nearly 13,000 residents through stable homes and remote or physically distanced services.

We’re grateful many community members have come forward to help create solutions, but we need your help, too. People often ask what they can do to take action. To help ensure the people we serve and others in similar situations don’t suffer irreparable harm, there are steps every community member can take.

First, you can start by learning how affordable rental housing helps seniors, families, and kids become and remain stable. You can contact your legislators today to urge support for affordable housing and housing infrastructure bonds. Attend community and city council meetings to advocate for affordable housing, because with housing stability come opportunities for families and individuals to meet their goals while saving and planning for the future.

Then, talk with your networks. Use your circles of influence to advocate for low-interest loan packages for people of color — teachers and firefighters are several groups who already have access to them. These types of strategies will help reduce decades of racial disparities and help all people prosper. When everyone has a stable place they can afford — and those who have the ability to own their home can do so, regardless of skin color — our communities become more equitable for all.

Please remind yourself and those around you that historic links among racism, health, and housing stability still impact all of us today. Both the pandemic and ongoing violence fueled by racism continue to demonstrate that a commitment to justice and to community, in all its forms, must always sit at the heart of our work. Every member of the community has an opportunity to step up right now. I hope you will join us.

Thomas Adams is the executive vice president of Housing & Services at CommonBond Communities. Previously he was the CEO of Better Futures. Adams is a Leadership Program graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and holds a Ph.D. in organizational leadership from Regent University.

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