Can Gates Break Down the Silos Between Housing and Education?

Recently, we caught up with Kollin Min, senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the Pacific Northwest region. We wanted to find out how his division, and the Gates Foundation as a whole, is working on housing, and how better linking this issue to education could raise student achievement, both in the Pacific Northwest, and possibly, across the nation.

Where did we get the idea that the Gates Foundation is growing more interested in housing nationally? There have been a several signs, including a grant to the DC Council on Large Public Housing Authorities for $150,000 in 2013 and another $50,000 in 2014 for "a national convening on the topic of how housing authorities and public school districts can more effectively partner to improve the educational outcomes for children residing in public housing or receiving federal housing subsidies." 

Another possible sign: the new CEO of the foundation, Susan Desmond-Hellman, recently wrote on the Impatient Optimists blog that a "stable place to call home" is one of the "few things that every child needs to lead a healthy, productive life." (Along with good schools and a strong community.) 

All this got us wondering: Where is the Gates Foundation headed on housing? Will it be expanding work on this issue, not only in its home region, but nationwide?

As we reported here, Gates is not new to housing. The foundation has been investing heavily in this area since early on, with a focus on reducing family homelessness in the Pacific Northwest. But now the foundation is talking more about linking up efforts on housing and education, and is doing some of this ground-level collaboration locally. Where will these efforts lead? 

Housing First

Min has been working with Gates since 2008, and started at the foundation just as it was developing second thoughts about its long-time housing work through its "Sound Families" program.

Min noted that after that $40 million, 8-year initiative was evaluated, "though we had hit our goal of creating these new units of transitional housing, the fact of the matter remained that there were more homeless families after we had finished than when we had started," due to the increased instability in the economy since 2008.

"Not to say that that money was at all wasted," said Min. "The problem would have been much worse without that investment, but it was just to say that the amount of resources we put into it were not sufficient to fundamentally alter the supply and demand equation for affordable housing."

So, in 2009, the foundation undertook a new approach to addressing family homelessness, looking at "what is necessary to bring about fundamental system change that can make family homelessness rare, brief, and one time," Min said. He added: 

Can we, on the rare side, limit the number of families forced to enter the family homelessness system? For those families who do have to enter the system, can we reduce the amount of time they are in the system? And then, can we reduce the number of families who have to return to the system?

Really our approach here is an effort to try to change the model. Before we had started, there was kind of a one-size-fits-all approach that said that first families had to go through a linear progression, first going through emergency shelter, then transitional housing for up to two years, and then ultimately, families could move into subsidized housing, and what we learned was, not all families needed that level of help.

In fact, what a lot families really need—no big surprise—is to quickly get into new housing. They need housing first, "because it's difficult for families to get their lives together without housing," Min said. And so the foundation has supported ways to streamline things so that the system better assesses the needs of homeless families and promotes a quicker move "to self-sufficiency. "

Linking Housing to Education

While the Gates Foundation has long noted the obvious linkages between housing, family stability, and student achievement, it hasn't done much grantmaking to specifically address that nexus. But that's changing, and Min says the foundation is advancing "partnerships between housing authorities and school districts, to look at the connection between housing stability and educational outcomes."

Min cited McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma, which was recently profiled by the Urban Institute, as an example of the kind of collaboration that the Gates Foundation has created. By enrolling in the McCarver special program, kids and families commit to staying with the same school and receive rental assistance as well as other forms of support. The idea, of course, is that less moving around will allow kids to improve academically—and not only the kids who would otherwise be shuttling around, but also their classmates, who studies show are negatively affected by the disruption of students coming and going.  

Min says the foundation has seen "positive results" from the partnership between the Tacoma School District and the Tacoma Housing Authority. But he also says this work is still early in the game. "We are just kind of taking baby steps with thinking about these issues." On the other hand, as Min describes it, all this is hardly rocket science: "We've come to the firm point of view that for many children challenged by housing and mobility issues, it really is important to try to bring systems together, and that's really the only way that we can improve outcomes."

What Can Be Done Nationally?

One step forward in breaking down the silos to improve housing and education will be an upcoming Affordable Housing and Education Summit in Washington, D.C., convened in February by the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. Julian Castro, Secretary of the HUD, will be keynote, and this event will be followed by a larger symposium where findings and practices will be discussed more broadly. 

"This will be one of the first times there will be a national discussion," said Min."Traditionally there have been pretty big silos between the housing and the education communities, so we're really trying to break that down."

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Could the foundation's work in the Pacific Northwest be a model for other communities who want to consider ways to improve family stability and get at one of the underlying issues that impacts education so strongly? Possibly.

Is the foundation going to start funding large-scale national initiatives to build affordable housing? Probably not, but we'll see. As we've noted elsewhere at IP, Bill and Melinda Gates have huge financial resources that they have yet to harness to philanthropy and so the couple may well step up their giving in coming years. If the foundation does expand its U.S. work, housing would be a logical place to focus more resources given the close connection to educational outcomes. 

Of course, the new CEO at Gates did just say that "a stable place to call home" is one of the few things that every child needs to succeed. We'll be watching to see how that elementary truth translates into grantmaking at the world's largest foundation.