Big Problem, Limited Funds: Can Philanthropy Make Headway on Housing?

 A housing protester in New York. Photo: a katz/shutterstock

A housing protester in New York. Photo: a katz/shutterstock

America's housing crunch is imposing severe stress on low-income households, but it's hitting lots of other groups, too, and in some regions is increasingly seen as an obstacle to job creation and economic growth. There's also growing research on the critical role housing plays on issues like family stability, health, and education. A wider array of funders have gotten interested in this area—drawn by the realization that safe and affordable housing is an important key to achieving any number of goals. 

Yet this is not a problem that lends itself easily to philanthropic solutions. As we’ve often observed, grantmakers do not possess the resources to tackle the housing crisis singlehandedly, given the scale of the challenge. And despite a recent rise in optimism among funders pursuing permanent supportive housing and other solutions, chronic homelessness is just one piece of a major national problem. A tangle of factors lie behind the broader housing crisis, including public disinvestment at the federal, state, and local level; zoning obstacles and NIMBYism; a discriminatory legacy of redlining and predatory lending; and more. Entrenched inequities related to race, class, and power play a big role in shaping this complex landscape. 

While we've reported on a growing number of efforts to build new housing that bring together philanthropy, government, and private actors, the scale of such initiatives tends to be small. “We can’t build our way out of this," says Susan Thomas of the Melville Charitable Trust, now serving as chair of the new Funders for Housing and Opportunity collaborative. Anything but an admission of defeat, Thomas’ statement reflects an evolving outlook among housing and homelessness funders. By banding together, and putting more muscle behind advocacy and movement building, the funders in this collaborative are hoping to make more systemic gains on housing. 


Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO) brings together nine grantmakers: the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Melville Charitable Trust, and the Oak Foundation. Its inaugural grants, awarded in February, totaled $4.9 million.

On the local level, these funders have already spent a lot of money backing solutions like permanent supportive housing, wrap-around services, and affordable housing construction. But FHO aims to think bigger. According to Thomas, the funders “wanted something catalytic that could really create a movement and cause people to think about housing in different way.” FHO is about changing narratives, encouraging activism, and providing an evidence base for policy reform. 

Its initial grants reflect those priorities. Support for the Center for Community Change’s Housing Trust Fund Project and the National Low Income Housing Coalition will go toward movement building, both to shift Washington D.C. and to change state and local policy. Meanwhile, the National Housing Trust and Enterprise Community Partners received funds to help magnify resident concerns and connect them to elected officials in a number of states. To round things off, the Partnership for Children & Youth will extend the capacity of its expanded learning program, which provides educational services to residents of affordable and public housing. 

That last grant highlights FHO’s belief that stable housing is a fundamentally cross-sector issue. Arguably, says Thomas, it underlies most of the other needs that social service philanthropy addresses. Without a safe roof over their heads, it’s a lot more difficult for people to hold down jobs, educate their children, provide for their health, secure basic resources—the list goes on. Access to housing, as the Ford Foundation’s Don Chen put it, “is the absolute baseline for families seeking to escape from poverty, people for whom even the smallest unexpected cost can be catastrophic.”

The idea for FHO grew out of internal conversations at Melville and elsewhere about the need for a more coordinated approach. As the collaborative came together, Thomas recognized that the funders are all “coming at this from different perspectives and with different priorities.” While some funders were already focused on housing, others found themselves funding housing as a necessary buttress for other services. Amid a constellation of organizations that want to build opportunity, FHO is a bid to create common ground around a fundamental need. “Philanthropy can provide the space to find that common ground and to repeat common messages,” said Thomas.

Common messaging will certainly be necessary as the federal government adopts a hands-off approach to housing, looking to states and localities to pick up the slack. According to Thomas, FHO’s grantees are focusing their efforts on the state level to build “a ground-flow of activity that can bubble up and influence federal policy.” Philanthropic support for resident organizing, she says, is a fairly new development, and it’s making strides in places like California, where grassroots campaigns are underway to direct state dollars toward affordable housing. 

For FHO, broader movement building goes along with bringing more funders into the mix. By positioning stable housing as a baseline need, the collaborative can call upon education funders, health funders, and those working on community development. We’ve already seen how some funders, including big health grantmakers like Robert Wood Johnson and insurance companies, are keyed into the nexus between housing and health outcomes

Of FHO’s partners, Hilton, Kresge, and JPB have already done work in that space. And while RWJF is not yet part of the collaborative, it wouldn't be surprising to see it join at some point. Gates, in turn, has been active around the links between housing and education—another nexus point that's drawn new attention, as more evidence has pointed to the devastating impact that unstable housing can have on student achievement. 

RelatedCan Gates Break Down the Silos Between Housing and Education?

Although FHO has not yet begun to actively pursue additional funding partners, that is the long-term plan. Later this spring, FHO plans to initiate another round of funding for advocacy and organizing. It’ll follow that up with a potential round of grants focused on health. It’s also currently working with a consultant on a narrative change strategy, so expect to see some interesting grants down the line. 

We'll be watching to see where this money goes at a moment where there's a lot going on with philanthropy and housing. For example, as we've reported, some of the collaborative’s members have experimented with housing mobility strategies, including Kresge, Annie E. Casey, Ford, and MacArthur. New approaches to financing are also getting a lot of attention. We've reported on the Strong Families Fund, a partnership between Kresge, Robert Wood Johnson, and a number of banks to invest in affordable housing around a “pay for performance” model.  

But it bears repeating that FHO’s core strategy is to move the levers of policy through better messaging, advocacy, and organizing to "catalyze large-scale, sustainable, long-term change." This collaboration stands as another example of impatient funders looking beyond narrow or more technocratic approaches to win broader victories in the halls of power.