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Centering Racial Justice in the Fight for Housing Justice

By Bea de la Torre, Trinity Church Wall Street

The following us an excerpt from the article "Centering Racial Justice in the Fight for Housing Justice," and is a part of FHO's Collaboration for Housing Justice series originally published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the series, we share ideas, observations, and lessons from our housing justice efforts, including how and why the work will only move forward if it is systemic, anti-racist, and bridges sectors.

Illustration by Raffi Marhaba, The Dream Collective

Homeownership is considered the American dream, but for millions of people who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), the reality of the US housing system is more of a nightmare. Built on a foundation of racism, discrimination, and exclusion, with roots stretching back to the birth of this nation, it has been used both intentionally and unintentionally to limit BIPOC living options and life opportunities. Racism is so deeply embedded in this system, in fact, that housing justice and racial justice are inseparable. That’s why, for a funder collaborative like Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO), racial equity is central to our mission of housing equity. We can’t solve the growing housing crisis unless we also address racial inequities, repair harms, and restructure systems to ensure positive life outcomes for all people.

It’s been this way for centuries, beginning with the displacement of Native People in the 1800s and continuing with the use of eminent domain laws to take desirable land away from thriving Black communities. Add to that practices like exclusionary and predatory lending, redlining, single-family zoning, blockbusting (leveraging white fear of a Black influx to buy houses cheaply and then marking them up for Black buyers), and contract buying (selling homes on a predatory contract basis rather than a standard mortgage). The disruptive development or neglect of highways cuts off communities of color or requires homes to be razed, and the neglect of infrastructure (e.g., schools, hospitals) in BIPOC neighborhoods makes living there more difficult. Hard-wired into systems and programs at all levels of government and the private sector, these policies bolstered white Americans’ stability, wealth, and access to opportunity while concentrating the effects of segregation, displacement, destabilization, gentrification, and poverty on BIPOC populations.


What We’ve Learned

1. No matter what philanthropic lens we use to view housing justice, racial equity is the focal point.

Because racism is woven into all of the systems that affect housing and homelessness, racial equity is a common thread in every solution. As FHO members, it doesn’t matter whether one foundation puts a priority on ending mass incarceration, as Trinity Church Wall Street does; or ending homelessness, as Melville Charitable Trust does; or taking a feminist approach to the intersections of gender, race, and class, as Meyer Memorial Trust does; or promoting health, the environment, or any of the other topics pursued by FHO’s member organizations. The north star that guides our collaboration on housing is the explicit, intentional focus on racial equity.

Being intentional is key. Trinity Church Wall Street had constructed a theory of change around achieving racial justice before joining FHO, but some other members have not. By creating a collective framework for racial equity, FHO made space for us all to clarify who we’re here to uplift, what results we want to achieve, and how we can move the needle toward those results.

2. Collaboration can lead to solutions that are as cross-cutting, multi-layered, and mutually reinforcing as the problem of racial discrimination in housing.

We need to change local, state, regional, and national systems to eradicate racism. Few philanthropies support change at all levels, but a funder collaborative can align efforts at multiple levels. For instance, Trinity Church Wall Street’s housing and homelessness work is primarily in New York City. But through FHO we played a role in advocating for federal dollars to cover low-income households’ rent arrears during the COVID-19 pandemic, which we know had an impact on our area along with many others. Through FHO, we also supported state campaigns to make the process of applying for federal funds easier. And we learned through the work of local organizers how to mobilize undocumented BIPOC households to apply for federal relief. Those experiences inform and bolster how Trinity works in our realm, and our contributions bubble up to shape systems beyond it.

3. Learning from lived experience is essential because those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

The meetings among funders that led to FHO’s formation did not include people with lived experience in housing instability, but we soon learned that our work is stronger when it's driven by what people are experiencing. For example, after hearing from grassroots supporters in the Alliance for Housing Justice that a big part of keeping people housed involves addressing the power imbalance between tenants and landlords, FHO focused more explicitly on tenants' rights and protections. We meet with grantees to learn what is and isn’t working, and we make changes in response. We pay attention if they say an idea won’t work or an interaction feels inauthentic. We try to collect input from many different people, from those working to change a single neighborhood to those mobilizing large-scale efforts, and we honor their expertise by compensating them.

We’re still figuring out how to structure long-term relationships with people with lived experience so their perspectives can influence our choices in an organic, non-tokenized way. However, operating collaboratively creates momentum as we all move toward this goal.


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