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How should the philanthropic sector address rising rents and the severe lack of affordable housing across the United States—two primary forces that cause people to lose their homes?
About seven years ago I was tasked with developing a funding portfolio for the Melville Charitable Trust to figure out how we—a small funder—could make an outsized impact on the growing supply issue and its cascading effects on our lowest-income friends, neighbors, and family members.
I was a senior program officer with the trust at that point, and was new to philanthropy and fairly new to housing. With only a mustard seed of knowledge, and a lot of humility, I spent time reading and learning from others about leaders in the field, the latest funding approaches, gaps in funding, and who was funding what.
Although new to both housing and philanthropy, I knew that where and how we live is integral to our health, education, and economic mobility. And I knew that unstable, unaffordable, and unsafe housing meant families had to choose between rent and food, utilities, medicines, and childcare. With limited affordable rental options in better resourced areas, people are sometimes held hostage in rodent- and mold-infested homes, battling the health consequences of toxic climate and environmental conditions, and far away from medical care, transportation, jobs, and quality schools.
To learn how the trust could do more, I reached out to grantmakers who funded housing, and, more importantly, to funders that did not support housing specifically but whose work signaled that they understood that housing stability impacted the broader outcomes they were hoping to see.
Insights from those early conversations were clarifying. While funder colleagues understood the inextricable connection between stable housing and issues like increasing graduation rates among kids in low-income areas, reducing childhood asthma, or increasing family income, it became evident that philanthropy was not organized to address intersectional issues—even within the same foundation.
Despite the intersectional social and economic challenges we address, philanthropy is typically organized by siloed programmatic areas. We need to address major issues like housing and homelessness in ways that impact the overall well-being of the people living in low-wealth communities, particularly people of color. For the trust, we could have continued to focus solely on improving the crisis response system to reconnect people to housing, but we realized the problem we were trying to solve was much bigger than people losing their homes. The problem is bigger than any one issue.
What would happen if we leveraged the collective power of philanthropy to improve the lives of a specific group of people rather than improve outcomes within a specific program area?
That was the impetus for launching Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO), a diverse group of funders with varied funding priorities, but who all agreed that safe, stable housing was key to advancing outcomes in their respective program areas. The original cohort of foundations that helped develop FHO included the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Ford Foundation, Gates Foundation, Kresge Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Oak Foundation, and Terwilliger Foundation. As Charles Rutheiser of the Annie E. Casey Foundation explains in the opening essay of this series, “No group or organization can create meaningful change alone.”
Read the full article about collective action to address homelessness by Susan K. Thomas at Stanford Social Innovation Review.