The widespread lack of affordable housing in the U.S. is neither a new nor an easy problem to solve. The need is great, and the solutions are complex. Despite decades of work from the public, private, and philanthropic sectors to improve the availability of and access to affordable housing, the challenge persists.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans (74%) cited the availability of affordable housing as a major problem in their community (NeighborWorks America, 2023). This brings large-scale trends to the community level. High interest rates, inflation, climate instability, and job market and population shifts — some the result of lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — have had a dramatic impact on the affordability of housing as it is experienced at the local level. Combined with preexisting biases such as the generational impacts of redlining and use-based zoning codes, the long-term effects of policies like restrictive zoning, and a multitude of other challenges, a perfect storm of placed-based pressures has resulted in a crisis of significant magnitude.

In some of this country’s fastest-growing metro areas, local grantmakers are rallying to the cause of affordable housing, highlighting challenges in homeownership, rental markets, and racial disparities. Three case studies illustrate these efforts.

Homeownership in Denver

Homeownership can be an important asset-building tool, particularly as a forced savings mechanism. However, the racial wealth gap, combined with the availability of affordable inventory, has made it practically unattainable — contributing to intergenerational disparities (Brookings, 2020). COVID-19 made things worse by compounding existing exorbitant housing prices, particularly in cities that had experienced pre-pandemic population growth. One such city is Denver, Colorado.

Since 2005, the population of Denver has increased by 29%, putting significant pressure on housing demand (Byers, 2023). The insufficient number of new housing units resulted in a tight housing market and reduced affordability. During this period of population growth, the average home price in Denver increased 138% while the average hourly wage rate grew by only 37% (Byers, 2023).

To address the city’s housing emergency, The Denver Foundation deepened its participation in policy work in 2021. The foundation has subsequently continued to grow its presence in this space, including supporting Denver’s Expanding Housing Affordability Ordinance, which requires that, as new housing units are built, a specific number of units must be designated as affordable (2023). This not only recognizes the contribution zoning has made to the affordability crisis but the lever it can be to help drive local solutions.

Read the full article about the affordable housing crisis by Julie Couturier, Emily Jex, and Lesley D. Slavitt at Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy.