We’ve been quieter than we’d like over recent months for a few reasons. The first is that a group of housing activists including several involved with Housing Now Seattle have been meeting and laying the groundwork for a new initiative that was to be rolled out over the summer. With the COVID-19 crisis those plans have been delayed, both because it disrupted our meeting schedule and because all of us have been feeling so overwhelmed by all this.
Those of us who have experienced homelessness before have some familiarity with this feeling. It’s like the world is pressing in on you and you try to grab hold of whatever is available that gives some comfort. Even when one is able to put together some temporary solution, the feeling of constant danger is exhausting.
That said, it is possible for individuals and for society to overcome. COVID-19 is beatable, as are many other problems. While the pandemic might be the most pressing crisis that we’re in, it’s not the only crisis we’ve got. The twin pressures of the housing crisis and the climate crisis have not gone away.
One thing the pandemic has made clear has been the inadequacy of market economics alone to deal with crisis. Crisis economics are necessarily different because they have to be driven by outcomes rather than processes. What is the point of multiple hospitals and state authorities bidding up the price of equipment for beyond the incentives that are supposed to drive innovation? What benefit does unpayable rents serve for landlords when those same landlords depend on everyone staying inside to stop the contagion? Why can’t farmers struggling to sell food reach some arrangement with people who struggle to buy it?
One thing we hope will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis is to shake free from the lethargy which has afflicted our politics. It’s important to pre-emptively respond to accusations that one is trying to use this crisis. To not use this crisis to try to deal with other problems is to learn nothing, change nothing, and get right back into the awful condition that helped spawn it.
We have an opportunity to look again at the solutions that were deemed either too radical or impractical before.
The quarantine has dramatically altered our use of space. Having the vast majority of office workers work from home has rendered idle huge tracts of land previously used for automobile travel and parking. Some might fantasize about getting back to business as usual of traffic jams and every car needing 3 parking stalls (home, work, shopping). Yet one must question how much of the old order should be returned. Before the pandemic we already saw steady pressure against the traditional daily commute and the shopping trip. Malls that were already dying may not recover their prior form. The community must find ways to catalyze our large landowners to contribute unused parking spaces to create homes.
There is also urgent need to take a fresh look at complimentary currencies to support our communities and help people stay safe and healthy. During the Great Depression the town of Wörgl in Austria faced high unemployment. There were also a huge backlog of public works projects. The mayor of Wörgl was inspired by the work of Silvio Gesell decided to issue a special form of money backed by the national currency, but with a 1% depreciation rate per month. People rushed to spend this money before the end of the month to avoid it depreciating. This resulted in the money circulating quickly throughout the economy. This not only boosted employment but also allowed the town to complete far more public works projects than otherwise would have been possible. The experiment was so successful that neighboring towns began adopting similar currencies. Unfortunately the Austrian central bank grew jealous of this success and put a stop to it.
These are just two of the low hanging fruit when it comes to responding to this crisis and adapting to the new reality we’re in. Putting these ideas into action is going to require activists to retool and re-engage. We’re all in a different place than we were just a few months ago. It’s strange and unfamiliar and scary. Many of us have lost family. We must take time to mourn the almost 100,000 people in the US who have died and many more around the world. While we seek to contain this virus and avoid more senseless deaths we must also address the other problems that have emerged or never went away. This is the challenge of our time.