Good God, New York Has a Lot of Foundations Dedicated to Affordable Housing

New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio swept into office last November with a progressive mandate following twelve years of the Bloomberg era, which created a thriving city, but which also produced an extraordinary income gap.

Income inequality is a feature of the whole American economy, but New York is a city of exaggerations, and the distance between its poorest and richest residents is practically interstellar. One of the under-recognized contributors to inequality is New York’s booming real estate market and the often comically high prices for apartments. Nobody ever says “housing crisis,” but isn’t it a crisis when a linoleum-floor basement studio the size of a mouse’s eardrum can cost $1200 a month? In Queens?

As a public advocate, DiBlasio tackled affordable housing via a number of initiatives, including NYC’s Worst Landlords Watch List, the introduction of the Heat Enforcement for All Tenants Act, and launching a pilot program giving tenants access to representation in housing court. And lots of other stuff! You basically can’t call yourself a public advocate around here if you’re not talking about how freaking expensive it is to keep a roof over your head.

Now he intends to foster development of 200,000 affordable housing units in the next decade through an aggressive policy of mandatory inclusionary zoning. The political will to improve existing affordable housing programs and to create new initiatives exists. But private philanthropy has been engaged with the issue for a long time, and matching established philanthropy programs and new political and legislative efforts has produced favorable outcomes recently.

The $200 million New York City Acquisition Fund provides local and not-for-profit developers with bridge financing to acquire private property for construction of affordable housing.  All but $8 million of the $40 million fund guarantee pool came from foundations, including the Ford Foundation, the Robin Hood Foundation, Heron Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Starr Foundation, New York Community Trust, and others. 

Speaking of the New York City Community Trust! With $2.1 billion in assets, it’s a vehicle through which private donors have made charitable donations since 1924. Among its sprawling array of focus areas, the trust aims to relieve New York’s shortage of affordable housing through community development grants that preserve affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods and strengthen community development organizations. The trust has a pretty transparent applications process, and community-based nonprofits can apply for grants at the website.

The F.B. Heron Foundation is super-interesting. While most foundations separate the investment and grantmaking operations, Heron has merged these two into a single office called “Capital Deployment.” Dedicated to improving the lives of people at the bottom of the economic ladder, the foundation conducted a 2012 internal review and shifted its strategy from an emphasis on access to assets— such as homeownership— to an emphasis on economic opportunity. Its website states,

We have seen U.S. poverty become baked into our economy—routine rather than marginal and exceptional. We have seen the limitations of access to jobs or financial services, largely because they are no longer connected to a universally welcoming mainstream economy. We believe that we must accept that the urgency and the large scale of the problem are fundamental challenges to our success. That has prompted us to change our strategy, our tactics and the way we operate.

Regarding these changes, they say, "While we still have a robust portfolio that supports the financing of affordable housing, the recent collapse in the capital markets forced the realization that acquisition strategies can only be successful if the targeted individuals have an income that can support those kinds of expenses."

The Heron Foundation refers to its grants as "investments," expecting a financial return— not to the foundation, but to the organizations in which they invest. Among these investees is the Housing Partnership Network, a business collaborative of affordable housing and community development nonprofits that uses private sector strategies and partnerships to help low-income people gain access to affordable homes.

Another, the TRF Reinvestment Fund, is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that specializes in the financing of neighborhood revitalization across the mid-Atlantic region. The fund invests in housing, new markets tax credit lending, healthy food businesses, charter schools, and quality child care.

The Heron Foundation is tax-status agnostic, so whether you operate a for-profit or non-profit organization, if your mission is aligned with their new priorities, and you have a proven track record of financial and impact performance, the Heron Foundation encourages you to get in touch via the website.

The full scope of philanthropy dedicated to affordable housing in New York City can’t be summarized in a single blog post. It’s a trending issue that we’ll be paying a lot of attention to.