Harvard University Joint Center For Housing Studies

Harvard University Joint Center For Housing Studies


Black American communities have faced disproportionate negative impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, including higher rates of infection and pandemic-induced income loss. In “How NeighborWorks Organizations Have Responded to the Racially Disparate Impact of COVID-19 in Black Communities,” my new paper published by the Center and NeighborWorks America, I report on research I conducted as a Gramlich Fellow which examines how community development organizations in predominantly Black communities have responded to COVID-19 in ways that address these impacts. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, I also ask how the national conversation about police brutality and the disparate impact of the pandemic have allowed organizations to advocate for a more racially equitable recovery.

To answer these questions, I conducted 26 interviews with community development professionals at NeighborWorks America and four organizations in their network: Neighborhood Housing Solutions of Los Angeles County (LA County, CA), Beyond Housing (St. Louis, MO), Urban Edge (Boston, MA), and Hope Enterprise Corporation (located in five states in the deep South).

Through these interviews and other research, I find that community development organizations have played an essential role in addressing racial disparities during the pandemic and laying the groundwork for a more equitable recovery. I identify six trends within these responses:

  1. Organizations have continued the equity-oriented work they were doing before the pandemic. Both Urban Edge and Neighborhood Housing Solutions of Los Angeles County continued homeowner education classes which are typically attended by higher shares of Black participants. This has helped sustain homeownership in communities of color during the pandemic.
  2. Organizations have identified the needs of Black communities through community engagement in order to target pandemic relief. Beyond Housing surveyed Black business owners who were planning to open physical storefronts in one of the organization’s new commercial properties. They learned that the major concern was access to liquid cash, and responded by offering grants to business owners to help them weather the pandemic.
  3. Organizations have filled the racial gaps left by “race-neutral” federal aid policies. Several organizations focused on helping Black business owners access Payment Protection Program (PPP) loans that were going to white business owners at higher rates. (Businesses were required to apply for PPP loans through financial partners; since Black businesses owners are less likely to have these connections, they would otherwise have been less likely to access this business- and job-saving resource.) Hope Enterprise Corporation stepped in after Alabama made local community aid available solely through a reimbursable system. Many towns in Alabama’s Black Belt that are predominantly home to low-income, Black households did not have the funds needed to purchase pandemic-response measures. To help those communities, Hope raised over $1 million the towns could use to purchase these measures, which they could repay using reimbursed funds from the state.
  4. Organizations have leveraged partnerships with public health organizations, other nonprofits, and corporate partners. Beyond Housing provided funds to a local clinic to offer COVID-19 testing. The testing results showed that infection rates in the predominantly-Black community were higher than in other parts of the state.
  5. Organizations have learned from past crises, particularly the 2008 financial crash. Neighborhood Housing Solutions of Los Angeles County signed onto a letter with several other Black-led organizations in the county to remind their Congressional representatives how much wealth Black families lost after the 2008 crisis. The letter also recommended prevention strategies informed by the previous crisis, such as expanded eviction moratoria and mortgage forbearance, as well as a first-right-of-purchase on foreclosed properties for affordable housing developers to keep neighborhoods affordable.
  6. Organizations have found new opportunities for more racially-explicit advocacy. Both Hope Enterprise Corporation and Neighborhood Housing Solutions of Los Angeles County released articles explicitly linking George Floyd’s death to underlying racial inequities that had resulted in Black communities being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and made these connections clear when advocating for more resources.

My findings have several implications for policymakers. First, the work of these organizations draws attention to gaps in federal aid delivery, including PPP funding and aid to state and local governments. Second, their work showed that one way to close these gaps is to provide more resources to community development organizations. These organizations are valuable resources: their staff know the particular challenges faced by residents and businesses in their communities, they are trusted to distribute information and resources, and they have the capacity and experience to serve as vital intermediaries between federal and state agencies and communities in need.

Finally, this research highlighted that while the summer’s events led leaders of some community development organizations to more openly discuss the racial implications of their work and to advocate for greater resources, others did not feel they needed to be more explicit about the implications of the work they had been doing for years. For both policymakers and funders, this is an important reminder that not every organization working to address racial inequities will describe this aspect of their work overtly. Funders need to examine the impact of these organizations’ work even in the absence of language about racial justice.

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