For the past 18 months, we have been told that the healthiest thing we can do is to stay home. While the pandemic restrictions have lifted for the vaccinated, those who remain unvaccinated, including everyone under the age of 12, were advised not to gather in groups this past Labor Day weekend.
While many of us have mostly stayed home, as a community we watched government agencies, businesses large and small, and nonprofit organizations make changes and find new ways of doing things. Some of these changes were challenging and unwelcomed. We long to return to “normal.” For instance, I serve as a pastor of a local church and the desire to take off our masks and sing out is strong. Yet we remained masked to protect one another. Other changes are welcomed. We have learned that there are plenty of meetings that work just as easily over Zoom as they do in person, saving people travel time and time away from home.
One of the more dramatic changes was that on March 24, 2020, just over a week after schools closed and Gov. Newsom issued the shelter-in-place order, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors passed a ban on residential evictions. By August 2020, the whole state was operating under an eviction moratorium passed by the state Legislature and signed by the governor. Two subsequent moratoriums would be passed, and rental assistance would increase from the original coverage of 75% of unpaid rent to 100% of unpaid rent.
For the last 18 months, we have prioritized keeping people and especially, keeping families, in their homes. San Mateo County and California residents and their elected leaders recognized that as a community keeping people in their homes was the moral thing to do. Now, as the statewide eviction moratorium is scheduled to end on Sept. 30, we are reminded that keeping families in their homes remains the moral thing to do. The morality of keep people in their homes does not have an expiration date. We knew it was the right thing to do between March 2020 and September 2021 and, in the midst of a devastating time, we had the moral will to do it.
There has never been a time when having a safe and secure place to live wasn’t a public health necessity. The pandemic just made the need for safe and secure housing more acute.
We’ve seen with fresh eyes some of the steps we need to take to be a whole and healthy community. We need safe ways for children to attend school, masks to keep one another safe, universal access to health care, including COVID-19 vaccines, and housing policies that prioritize keeping people in their homes.
One of my favorite biblical passages comes from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah sends a letter to his people who have been taken into exile. He tells them, “Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce … Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5,7)
The pandemic has been its own type of exile — an exile from a way of life to which we had grown accustomed. As this ancient prophet talks about his people’s exile, I am drawn to the connection between the welfare of the people and the welfare of the city they call home. These words speak across the centuries because we know that our welfare is intimately connected to the welfare of our neighbors.
During this time when we are still fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for safe and secure housing has become more apparent. We need new ways of thinking about housing for all our neighbors. In fact, it is more than a need, being housed is survival. But this was true before the pandemic began, and it will be true when the pandemic comes to an eventual end. We have demonstrated over the past 18 months that we can keep people in their homes. It is not easy. And it takes money and social and political will, but we can do it.
We know that big things are possible. In recent examples, beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, California will provide free school lunches for all children, regardless of family income. And the state is also moving towards universal transitional kindergarten. With these examples to encourage us, let’s also work on finding ways to keep individuals and families in their homes. Our common welfare depends on it.
The Rev. Katie Goetz is pastor of Woodside Road United Methodist Church in Redwood City and is a member of the Peninsula Solidarity Cohort. She lives in Redwood City.