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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

COVID-19 and the Changing Role of Boston’s Community Development Corporations

Correction Note: A previous version of this blog did not list the author.

In response to the ongoing, multifaceted crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Boston’s Community Development Corporations (CDCs) have expanded their traditional roles to include more direct assistance for renters and increased advocacy on housing issues facing vulnerable renters. That’s a key finding that emerged from a Center-funded research project I carried out this summer on Boston’s response to COVID-19, which has infected more than 26,000 Boston residents and at its peak left 19.3 percent of the city’s workers without jobs. The following four themes emerged in my interviews with the leaders of six Boston-area CDCs (Figure 1), all of whom serve predominantly non-white neighborhoods, and collectively they show how the scale of need surfaced by the pandemic has ushered in an evolution in the role and responsibility of CDCs in the Boston area:

1. CDCs have been able to respond quickly to help vulnerable renters with nimble technical expertise and rapidly mobilized resources. The leaders of the CDCs interviewed spoke of quickly gaining and deploying technical expertise to connect as many eligible individuals as possible to emergency funding available through expanded federal unemployment insurance and Massachusetts’ Rental Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program. Notably, city officials relied on CDCs to distribute funding awarded through Boston’s Rental Relief Fund (RRF), even though recipients of rental subsidies, like many residents of CDC properties, were ineligible for that assistance. The RRF deployed $8 million in emergency rental payments to city renters living at or below 80 percent of Area Median Income and at risk of homelessness due to job loss associated with the pandemic. The city relied heavily on CDCs, especially East Boston’s Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, Inc., to support their program. In the event of gaps left unaddressed by government programs among their neediest community members, certain CDCs went so far as to fundraise and administer their own emergency rental relief funds.

2. Deeply embedded in community, CDCs have helped policymakers understand residents’ needs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, CDCs have taken on an increased advocacy role in support of eviction prevention and have been crucial advocates for the implementation and expansion of city- and state-wide eviction and foreclosure moratoria. Involvement in coalitions like the Mayor’s Health Equity Task Force and the Boston Coalition of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC) allowed the leadership of Boston CDCs to consolidate and elevate shared concerns quickly and efficiently, critically informing the city’s emergency response. Going forward, this line of communication should be used to raise a number of outstanding and unaddressed needs of CDCs that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and gone unmet by the city’s emergency response efforts, including:

  • Language access through the multilingual translation of city documents to facilitate greater awareness and utilization of city funding;
  • Free or affordable childcare solutions for low-income families as workplaces reopen while schools/day cares remain shuttered;
  • Support for growing technological literacy especially among older adults;
  • Mental health care for isolated residents; and
  • Physical, social, and financial emergency preparedness capacity building for CDC residents, properties, and organizations.

3. COVID-19 could create fiscal challenges for CDCs. CDCs, like typical landlords, have a bottom line that requires income from collected rent, but they are unique in their mission-driven commitment to providing affordable housing, comprehensive resident services, and locally accountable neighborhood development. While the CDC leaders interviewed did not see significant declines in their rent collection rates as of August 2020, they were worried that the expiration of extended federal unemployment insurance benefits could cause a decrease in rental collections. If tenants stop paying rent on their market rate units or have to readjust their income-based voucher contributions due to a loss of income, CDCs could find themselves experiencing budget shortfalls. If this happens, CDCs could be forced to consider evicting tenants who have fallen behind on their rent, requiring difficult tradeoffs between finances and values.

4. COVID-19 isn’t the only emergency plaguing vulnerable renters and the CDCs that support them. The CDC leaders interviewed in this research stressed the need for a broader understanding of and engagement with the interconnectedness of housing, racism, and the social determinants of health. For many of the leaders of Boston’s CDCs, it is more apparent than ever that low-income communities of color need the tools to identify, understand, and deconstruct the racial inequities that determine both health and housing outcomes. Especially in light of this summer’s deaths of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the nationwide outcry and protest in response, there is also a desire for an explicit anti-racist approach to be woven into affordable housing and community development work undertaken by both CDCs and government officials.

The key takeaways from the emergency response untaken by Boston’s CDC are applicable to nonprofit and public entities both within Boston and across the country. In crafting responses to this pandemic and pre-existing underlying challenges, policymakers at all levels should tap into the unique and important expertise found in CDCs, and center the needs of their communities. This will necessitate new avenues for partnership and communication between government and CDCs in addition to the expansion and reimagination of available funding, organizational capacity, and political capital in support of the affordable housing and invaluable wraparound support services that CDCs provide. The COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing emergency of untold impact but if the response to the pandemic is managed responsibly and rooted in community-accountable organizations, this crisis could offer previously unobtainable opportunities to advance the sustainability, stability, scope, and impact of uniquely vital community development corporations.

Figure 1: Stats of Community Development Corporations Interviewed

CDC Interviewed Neighborhood Services Provided Units Managed
Urban Edge Roxbury and Jamaica Plain
  • Credit and student loan counseling
  • First-time homebuyer education and pre/post-purchase counseling
  • Foreclosure prevention counseling
  • Family supports and youth leadership
1,300 units
Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation Dorchester
  • Real estate development focused on transit-oriented development and sustainability
  • Economic development through foreclosure prevention, pre- and post-homebuyer education and homeownership classes
1,400 units
Asian Community Development Corporation Chinatown
  • Financial literacy and homebuyer education
  • Youth programming and empowerment
  • Community organizing and civic engagement
  • Placemaking and neighborhood tours
375 units
Neighborhood of Affordable Housing East Boston
  • First time homebuyer classes
  • Foreclosure prevention
  • Financial education
  • Senior and disabled home repair
  • Youth leadership
1,400 units
Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción The South End
  • Bilingual preschool and youth development
  • College and financial empowerment
  • Villa Victoria Center for the Arts
  • Resident services, particularly focused on seniors with culturally responsive approach
  • Community technology center
1,000 units