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Transforming our Housing System

By Charles Rutheiser, Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Jeanne Fekade-Sellassie, Funders for Housing and Opportunity

The following us an excerpt from the article "Transforming Our Housing System," 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

Housing is much more than a roof over one’s head. Having a place to call home is a basic human need—a place of safety, stability, support, and belonging. Stable housing roots people in their community and allows access to the opportunities that are necessary to thrive and enjoy a brighter future.

Housing stability is not something that millions of extremely low-income Americans can take for granted. According to the 2022 State of the Nation’s Housing reportby Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, more than 70 percent of renters with incomes below $30,000 a year paid more than a third of their income for housing, and an additional 20 percent of them paid more than half, leaving very few resources to pay for necessities such as food and health care. The situation for extremely low-income homeowners was no better. The percentage of housing cost-burdened households earning less than $30,000 increased from 70 to 73 percent between 2019 and 2020.

Housing cost burdens are unequally distributed by race, with Black and Latino households two to three times more likely to pay outsized shares of their income toward housing. Significant racial disparities were not limited to housing costs. Households of color were significantly more likely to be evicted, foreclosed upon, or displaced from their homes by gentrification. They were also more likely to live in units that were overcrowded or contaminated by lead, asbestos, and other environmental hazards within high-poverty, low-opportunity communities. Families of color have also carried a heavier burden due to the pandemic, from higher rates of disease and mortality to higher rates of job loss and income that led to missed rent or mortgage payments.

The economic consequences of the pandemic sparked an unprecedented response to the housing crisis. Greater awareness of this issue led to national moratoria on evictions and foreclosures that kept millions of families in their homes, while more than $55 billion in emergency financial assistance for renters and homeowners helped millions of households pay off their housing debt. Preliminary data from the US Department of the Treasury indicates emergency rental assistance targeted low-income households of color. Dozens of states and localities passed new short- and long-term protections for tenants and explored new kinds of partnerships with nonprofit and community groups.

As the pandemic continues into its third year, many aspire to a return to “normal.” But with respect to housing, a return to how things were is neither possible nor desirable. Long-standing racial disparities provide evidence of how bias and discrimination are a feature, and not a bug, of our housing system. The dramatic increase in both rents and home prices threatens to intensify affordability challenges for low- and moderate-income families.

Coming Together to Respond

There is nothing simple about the issue of housing. It is an inherently complex and wonky domain, requiring an understanding of complex issues that defy simplistic solutions, quick fixes, and strictly partisan ideology. Getting our housing system to work better for all—especially for families of color who have long experienced discrimination and bias—will require a long-term concerted endeavor with coordinated efforts from a broad host of public, private, and community actors. Philanthropy has important roles to play in these efforts in providing funding, supporting community-led or directed efforts, and generating research and learning.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s mission is to create a brighter future for America’s children, young people, and families. While the foundation’s mission covers much more than just housing, it cannot achieve this mission without helping to ensure families have safe, stable, and affordable housing. To do so, the foundation focuses on improving housing stability, expanding the production or preservation of affordable housing for families, and ending youth homelessness. Casey seeks to accomplish these goals in a variety of ways, from investing and supporting research and policy advocacy to building the capacity of community, nonprofit, and public organizations to lift up the voices of young people.

But the foundation also recognizes that no group or organization can create meaningful change alone. To mobilize the full power and potential of philanthropy requires more effective collaboration and coordination among foundations. Notwithstanding the emergence of several funder collaboratives in recent years, such coordinated activity is still more of an exception than the rule. When Susan Thomas from the Melville Charitable Trust reached out to me more than six years ago about her idea for Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO), the value proposition was as clear and compelling as it was daunting. The goal was to bring the nation’s leading funders together from across sectors and perspectives in a funder collaborative to advance stable housing that connects people to better health, economic opportunity, and good jobs and schools, especially for those who have historically been denied access. Could foundations with unique missions and priorities go beyond talking and learning to aligned action?

Indeed, they could. It wasn’t easy, requiring sustained investment not only of funds, but of time, intention, and attention to build the collective, shared understanding and an organizational infrastructure that could endure over time, even as individual members moved on. FHO has endured because it has delivered value, not only to its grantees and the field but to its member organizations. Participating in FHO has helped the Casey Foundation develop a more sophisticated appreciation of the importance of housing while building lasting relationships with other funders. While the systemic issues that often make housing in the United States unaffordable or unstable cannot be fixed overnight, a growing coalition of funders, activists, and policy makers committed to lasting change is fighting for a day when everyone has a place they can call home.


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