I started as president of Eden Housing in 2001, the year of 9/11. Since then Eden has weathered the “dot.com bust,” the Great Recession, wildfires, and the PG&E shutdowns. While I could never have imagined the COVID-19 pandemic, all of these events have taught me important lessons about leading our organization and the importance of our work.
Lesson No. 1: Be prepared for the unexpected and ensure that you have an organization that is structurally and financially sound. It is critical to weathering events like the one we are currently experiencing. We have learned that we to have to be vigilant not just about our organizational capacity, but about the impacts these changes have on the many funding sources we use to build affordable homes. We have to be constantly mindful of the need to advocate for the programs that make it possible to do our work. We can’t wait until our funding is on the brink of elimination to advocate for our work. The loss of $1 billion in annual housing funding with the elimination of redevelopment agencies in California was a wake-up call about the importance of advocacy for our work, not just for Eden, but for all of us in this industry. We cannot advocate alone, we must speak together about the importance of affordable housing.
Lesson No. 2: Carpe diem. These crises will likely reshape your organization and the services you provide in ways that you might have been thinking about or ways you hadn’t considered. However, these events don’t just offer threats, they sometimes present opportunities. The rapid advancement of the use of technology for our operations was clearly the internal opportunity for Eden and our peers. However, COVID has underscored the inequities that many of our residents face, from the lack of a financial safety net to limited access to technology—both computer equipment and broadband access—that make it possible for children to attend online school, parents to look for jobs and file for unemployment benefits, and seniors to connect to their doctors and the outside world.
Our team is committed to helping the children who live with us adapt to the online school environment. If we don’t help, the achievement gaps faced by the children we serve will only get worse. We believe that home is where your start is, and today’s home has to have high-quality broadband access. It’s a utility that is as important as electricity and water.
The move to a virtual environment has long been on the horizon, and the affordable housing industry can no longer put a check mark next to digital equality by adding a computer room to our blueprints. We need to embrace initiatives like the California Public Utilities Commission’s program to expand broadband access and technology education in affordable housing and underserved communities. Department of Housing and Urban Development and tax credit programs need to create incentives to fund expanded access and the education resources that support it. Technology companies and philanthropy need to work with all of us to solve the equipment and broadband challenge. Eden will continue to solve this problem one corner at a time, but it’s time for broader commitment to solutions that offer low-income communities the opportunity to leap forward instead of being left behind.