With the ravages of COVID-19 illuminating disparities in racial equity, health, and environmental conditions, we must reiterate a fundamental principle from the last three years of SPARCC work:Community-driven development rooted in multi-sector collaboration must be at the core of supporting equitable, healthy, and resilient communities.
COVID-19 is affecting low income and families of color disproportionately, with increased racist attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and with Black, Asian, Native American and Hispanic individuals who catch the virus far more likely to die than their White counterparts. While a pandemic may not discriminate, it dramatically exposes the living legacy of a society that has for generations systematically disinvested—often with explicit racial animus—in communities of color, such that people lack equal access to housing, clean water, energy, food, health care, quality child care, work opportunities, and a range of other foundational support systems.
Lawmakers have been working at a breakneck pace to provide emergency resources necessary to meet the unprecedented demands straining public systems and the economy. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed in March provided an important down payment with critical resources to meet emergency housing, child care, energy, transit, small business, and other immediate needs. However, much more needs to be done to ensure family and community resilience in the face of an ongoing crisis. We must also lay the groundwork for a just and equitable recovery. Absent a concerted and intentional effort we risk leaving in place a healthcare system and broader economic and social safety net that COVID-19 has of course exposed as fundamentally flawed and deeply unjust.
National SPARCC partners urge federal lawmakers to keep the following in front of mind in any upcoming relief or stimulus packages:
1. Protect people’s health and safety, particularly essential workers across all sectors and in our most vulnerable communities.
In addition to essential healthcare and transportation service workers, many others in the workforce, particularly low-income, Indigenous, Black and Latinx people do not work from home and are exposed daily to increased health risks. Congress should set standards that ensure all workers will be protected while providing services to keep the economy moving and protect human life. Early data shows that COVID-19 is exacerbating pre-existing social and health inequities along racial and ethnic lines. The Dept. of Health and Human Services should be required to monitor and report on transmissions, provide equitable access to timely testing and report on mortality rates by race and ethnicity.
2. Ensure equitable and sustainable access to affordable housing throughout the crisis and beyond.
Never has it been more clear that “housing is healthcare.” Orders to “stay home” are only effective insofar as people have a home. The nation was already facing a severe shortage of affordable homes with persistent inequities in housing prior to the pandemic. The need for healthy and sustainable affordable housing will be even more acutely felt in the months and years to come. Congress should act swiftly to provide to-scale investments in effective affordable housing programs with additional support for renters and unhoused populations to stay or access stable housing options and avoid eviction.
3. Ensure universal access to clean water and energy throughout the crisis and beyond.
Safe running water for household cleaning and personal hygiene is a paramount necessity, especially during this public health crisis. Energy is needed to heat and cool homes, prepare meals and keep food and medicine secure. Yet, one in three households in the US face extreme hardships in paying energy bills and rural, low-income and communities of color, especially Native communities, have the least access to clean water in the US exacerbating risks to COVID-19. Clean water should be a right of all people, at all times. Congress should institute a national moratorium on shutoffs of water, electricity and gas for occupied residential buildings; require and provide resources for utilities to safely reconnect water and electricity; and increase funding to support affordable water and energy programs for low-income families. The legislation should ensure that families get plenty of time after the crisis to use long-term repayment plans, and utilities that receive federal grants or loan forgiveness should forgive their residential customers past arrangements.
4. Invest in equitable community infrastructure that promote the health and resilience of communities so that we can rebuild stronger than before the crisis.
Lawmakers must look towards reinforcing the long-term strength of communities. At a minimum, significantly more federal resources are needed to ensure all communities have access to basic infrastructure that is safe, climate-ready and healthy. Basic infrastructure includes healthy housing, water, food, energy, mobility, transit, parks, health care, hazard mitigation, quality child care, and more. Frontline infrastructure such as community health centers are especially in need of support during this time. It is imperative to require an inclusive recovery implementation process that engages residents and nonprofits from vulnerable communities in the design, construction, operations and maintenance of these infrastructure systems.
5. Ensure that economic recovery packages support all small businesses and lay the groundwork for an equitable economy for all.
The CARES Act provided $350 billion in support for small businesses and non-profits administered by the Small Business Administration and Treasury Department. These resources were quickly depleted. It is clear that frontline workers, non-profits, minority-owned businesses and community-based lenders like CDFIs are struggling to access resources, and that more funding support is required. Policymakers must address these disparities with a sense of urgency. Emergency intervention can serve as a springboard to take on the root causes of economic inequality and open pathways to closing the wealth gap and creating more opportunities for community ownership. Failing to do so will instead just exacerbate the lack of equal access to opportunity that was a pre-existing condition of American society when this pandemic struck.
6. Provide immediate federal support to state, territorial, local, and tribal governments scaled to the challenges they face.
States, territories and local governments desperately need resources from the federal government simply to keep essential services functioning and to maintain their crisis COVID-19 response. This need will not disappear even when the pandemic itself recedes. Indeed, these governments will struggle mightily in the coming year to balance their budgets, as required by law, as the economic impacts of the crisis continue to be felt. Difficult trade-offs are being made given budget shortfalls that negatively impact the ability to fund critical local services. The impacts of these forced cuts most negatively impact communities of color and lower-income households. Additional federal funding is needed for the Coronavirus Relief Fund, created in the CARES Act, to help state and local governments address revenue losses resulting from the COVID-19 crisis.
The federal government is leading the allocation of emergency funding to meet the growing need on the ground, but states and localities also have an important role to play in ensuring these resources are implemented quickly, efficiently, and equitably. SPARCC collaborative tables have demonstrated the power of approaching community development from a collaborative, multi-sector, regional perspective that centers racial equity, arts and culture and community voice. States and localities should use this opportunity to safely engage community residents and cross-sector partners to ask a central question in the implementation of emergency resources: What is the most racially equitable process and outcome? SPARCC partners across the six sites– Atlanta, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and Memphis– offer important lessons learned for other communities seeking a more community-driven and equitable development approach.
Despite unprecedented challenges across all of society, so much of what is needed to respond and rebuild from the COVID-19 crisis is based on centering social, economic and racial equity. We all must remain committed to working with local partners and lawmakers to advance the health and sustainability of communities nationwide – a goal that is now more important than ever.