It’s no secret the U.S. is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Rents are spiraling out of control while incomes stagnate, with rents increasing at more than triple the rate of wages over the last 50 years.
The increasingly desperate situation has led nine U.S. foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation, to announce on Tuesday that they are launching a partnership to tackle systemic problems in the housing market. The aim: to ensure that the more than 11 million families across the country that spend more than half of their paycheck on rent and those who are homeless have access to safe, affordable housing.
The partnership, called Funders For Housing and Opportunity, has divided an initial $4.9 million in grant money between four nonprofits that tackle housing insecurity. This first tranche of money is aimed “mostly in the area of policy, advocacy and organizing,” said Susan Thomas, senior program officer at Melville Charitable Trust and chair of Funders for Housing and Opportunity.
Center for Community Change will get $750,000 to bolster its work with low-income communities, with a focus on California and Washington state. National Housing Trust and Enterprise Community Partners will receive just over $1 million to lead a community coalition to help residents get heard on housing issues. The California-based Partnership for Children and Youth will get $400,000 for its training and advocacy work in housing developments.
The largest grant, $2.7 million over three years, goes to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), which is working to launch a multi-sector housing campaign including organizations from across the health care, civil rights, education and anti-poverty fields.
“The research that’s been building shows us that when people are struggling so much just to afford their homes, they’re suffering in a multitude of ways,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the NLIHC. “They have poor health, their kids are unable to do as well in school as their peers who are affordable housed, they have lower lifetime earnings and they even have have lower life expectancy.”
The NLIHC was behind stark research last year into rent affordability, which found that for those working a 40-hour week on the minimum wage, there is no state in the country where a modest two-bedroom rental home is affordable (defined as costing less than 30 percent of the renters’ income). A renter earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would need to work 117 hours a week for a two-bedroom rental home to be affordable.
“I would say the affordable housing crisis has reached historic heights,” said Yentel, who pointed to research showing a shortage of 7.4 million affordable homes available for the lowest income people. “Another way of looking at it is for every 100 of the lowest income people in our country, there are just 35 homes that are affordable and available to them.”
At a time families are “making choices between their housing payments and buying healthy food, medicine or school supplies for their kids,” said Sue Henderson, Habitat for Humanity International’s vice president for the United States and Canada, this new partnership is to be welcomed.
“We need more funders at the table and more work boots on the ground,” she added.
The nearly $5 million initial purse is, of course, peanuts compared to the total resources of these foundations, which collectively manage assets of about $470 billion. But Thomas said this is just the start. More money will be available that will be focused on mobilizing and scaling grassroots projects that work “particularly in the areas at the intersections of housing and education and housing and health care. ... We really feel very strongly that this is a cross-sector issue; it’s not just a housing issue.”
The announcement comes at a time when President Donald Trump’s administration has just unveiled a proposed budget that hacks away at the funding available for affordable housing. “It looks really grim,” said Mary Cunningham, vice president of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “I don’t think philanthropy will be able to make up the losses that we face from the federal budget but certainly getting smarter, targeting affordable housing and helping align the fields is really important work.”
She added, “We really know what the solutions are to ending the affordable housing crisis and ending homelessness and that is building more housing and we just haven’t figured out a way to pay for that.”
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