May 12, 2020. The Columbus Dispatch.

BREAD hosts its annual Nehemiah Action event via Zoom, emphasizing how affordable housing has become a more urgent need due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A local interfaith group didn’t let COVID-19 stop it Tuesday from hosting its annual gathering to lobby for affordable housing and other social justice issues.

For each of the past 22 years, BREAD — Building Responsibility, Equality and Dignity — has hosted its Nehemiah Action event locally. The event usually brings 3,000 people together to call on local officials to make life more equitable for residents in Columbus and Franklin County.

After the organization realized it couldn’t safely host an event with 3,000 during a global pandemic, it got creative to figure out how to keep using what BREAD Co-president Cathy Levine calls its “people power.”

“When we’re stuck at home, we’ve been using Zoom to meet with public officials, do research and hold committee meetings,” Levine told The Dispatch before Tuesday’s meeting. The interfaith group purchased a Zoom account with the capacity to host 500 people, hoping many will tune in with their families on one account. “Now we’re using Zoom to bring people together.”

At one point, 335 users were viewing the organization’s event Tuesday evening on Zoom, though there may have been more watching using the same device. The organization also discussed the problems with gun violence in the community, elderly health, and jobs and poverty in the Linden community.

The need to bring people together and raise awareness of local issues has only been heightened by COVID-19, Levine told The Dispatch.

“The coronavirus pandemic has just exacerbated the community problems we focus on,” she said.

Included in those issues is affordable housing, a renewed focus of the group for the past few years.

“Before COVID hit, we had this crisis,” Levine said. “With COVID, these people have lost jobs. … It’s terrifying that if and when the moratorium on evictions is lifted — and it will have to be lifted — at some point thousands and thousands of families will face evictions.”

Last year, after the action event, the Franklin County commissioners pledged $6.5 million a year to provide affordable housing in the area.

More than 54,000 central Ohioans pay more than half of their income on housing, though the national affordability standard is just one-third of income, Levine said.

“There’s a disconnect on how much people are earning and how much they’re being asked to pay for rent,” she said. “We’re asking city officials to do what other cities have done and make a large investment” toward affordable housing.

The hope is that some of the dollars of that investment can come from the federal money coming to the city due to the pandemic and it can be used to help create an emergency housing assistance program that could help renters and landlords, Levine said.

The city got $157 million of federal coronavirus relief money, city spokeswoman Robin Davis said in an email. On Thursday, the city will reveal how it plans to use it, she said.

“Last year, some 2,000 people stood up when I asked if you or someone you know was having a housing struggle,” the Rev. Tim Ahrens, senior pastor at First Congregational Church Downtown and a member of the BREAD Housing Committee, said during the Zoom call. “The housing crisis for us is still there. … This week we must press, we must push on.”

Ahrens encouraged those tuned in to the call to write on a piece of paper, “Dear state and local officials, please use the federal funds for emergency housing assistance,” and then to take a photo of themselves with the sign and post it online with ”#ohiohousinghelp.”

Graham Bowman, an attorney with the Ohio Poverty Law Center, filmed a message for the Zoom viewers and emphasized the intensity of the housing crisis in Ohio.

Each day, 75 to 200 people are evicted in Columbus, he said.

“This is a major, major crisis, but all of us together can make a difference,” Ahrens said.

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