In recent years, rising homelessness and a shortage of affordable housing have created a sense of crisis in many places, spurring private funders to action with new community initiatives and cross-sector partnerships. For all its billions, philanthropy is still only a bit player in this arena. But foundations can and do shape what’s possible, especially at the local level, where grantmakers have played a key role in public-private efforts to house the homeless and bring down housing costs. In turn, the magnitude of these challenges has forced some foundations to rethink how they operate, and accelerated movement toward impact investing, as well as an embrace of deeper working relationships with government and business.
For decades, housing was something of a backwater within a philanthrosphere where sexier causes won the spotlight and grant dollars. Today, this issue area offers a window into several dynamic trends shaping the sector.
The private funding landscape on housing is, well, complicated—and has become more so in recent years as major banks have stepped up with impact investments, with community development grants and partnerships mixed in. Meanwhile, more foundations have arrived on the scene. Most are focused on homelessness or affordable housing at the local level. But some grantmakers, such as Ford and Kresge, are also looking to catalyze national policy change.
Here are some of the most important housing funders grouped by strategies they favor. This list is hardly exhaustive, and a funder’s appearance in one category doesn’t mean it isn’t funding in another. Nonprofits working around housing on the ground can wear many hats—advocate, service provider, planner, developer—and by extension, so do their backers.
Advocacy and Narrative Change
Ford Foundation: Ford has been a staunch community development funder for over 50 years, giving it a broad understanding of how race, money and the law intersect to hold some neighborhoods back while others surge forward. It’s using that experience to fund in a variety of housing-related verticals, of which advocacy and narrative change may be the most impactful. True to Ford’s wide-ranging campaign against inequality, many of its grantees advocate for affordable housing, tenants’ rights, financial empowerment, and an end to exclusionary patterns of development. Some examples include Smart Growth America, Living Cities, Fair Share Housing Center and PolicyLink.
Kresge Foundation: Like Ford, Kresge’s commitments to policy advocacy and research flow from its support for housing and community development on the ground. Headquartered in Michigan, Kresge is often associated with that region’s challenges. Like many of the funders on this list, it has been active in the community development “petri dish” that is Detroit. But Kresge makes grants nationwide, and along with Robert Wood Johnson, it’s a crucial backer of efforts to link housing with health.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Robert Wood Johnson’s focus on the housing-health nexus is even more pointed than Kresge’s. In a 2019 annual message, RWJF’s Rich Besser characterizes housing as a key determinant of well-being, centering it in the health-focused foundation’s work. Moves by RWJF and Kresge to get the message out about housing’s “upstream” effects on health certainly qualify as narrative change. So does similar advocacy by funders like Annie E. Casey through the lens of children and families. To paraphrase Ford’s Xavier de Souza Briggs, that kind of work is redefining housing as a public good rather than a market good. And that’s a powerful shift.
Housing Investment and Community Development
Wells Fargo: Say what you will about this scandal-ridden bank, but Wells Fargo is actually one of the largest housing funders of the past decade. It’s not all philanthropy, though, since much affordable housing funding takes the form of impact investments or concessional lending. But the scale of the bank’s commitments have been substantial nonetheless, and they’re set to continue to the tune of $1 billion in philanthropy through 2025. One major beneficiary over the past decade has been the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation (also known as NeighborWorks America), a nationwide network of community development organizations chartered by Congress to back local projects. Habitat for Humanity International and Enterprise Community Partners are some of Wells’ other frequent beneficiaries.
JPMorgan Chase: A similar story to Wells Fargo. The recipients of JPMorgan’s largesse have been a bit more diverse, but like Wells, the nation’s largest bank likes to spread the money around with a focus on large metros. JPMorgan philanthropy targets urban poverty in a way that draws on its financial expertise, immense reach, and its network of branches and employees on the ground. Those are advantages private foundations mostly lack, and a major reason that banking giants appear on this list.
Ford Foundation: While the sum total of its investments in housing construction might not compare with the banks, Ford is a key funder of equitable community development. It backstops a wide range of community development corporations involved in affordable housing construction (although that’s usually just one dimension of its work). Ford is also an active funder of organizations working to create and preserve affordable housing, including Enterprise Community Partners, Housing California and the Housing Partnership Network. Their missions often blend impact-driven housing investment with progressive housing advocacy. That’s a fair characterization of Ford’s overall approach.
Melville Charitable Trust: Homelessness is the most urgent and visible manifestation of housing scarcity, and Melville’s mission is to address it. Even though much of Melville’s grantmaking takes place on the ground in Connecticut, it has become a leading national advocate for ending homelessness. As we’ve pointed out, philanthropic resources can make a significant impact on local homelessness rates, even if they can’t build affordable homes for everyone. Melville has encouraged the popular “housing first” approach, which prioritizes permanent supportive housing to get people off the streets as soon as possible.
Conrad N. Hilton Foundation: Operating in Los Angeles County, the Hilton Foundation has also embraced the “housing first” mantra. It’s been working alongside public and private partners to build out supportive housing for L.A.’s large homeless population, an effort that relies on over $1 billion in bond funds voters approved in 2016. But L.A. also illustrates the potential limits of “housing first.” Even though thousands of people have entered supportive housing since 2016, the city’s homeless population just keeps going up. Without more policy movement and investment to address the root causes of homelessness—housing scarcity, addiction, and mental health among them—people may keep falling through the cracks, even as others are housed.
Bezos Day One Fund: Jeff Bezos finally got around to large-scale philanthropy late last year, when he and his then-wife MacKenzie made a $2 billion commitment to the Bezos Day One Fund to support early childhood education and reduce homelessness. Since then, tens of millions of dollars in Bezos wealth has gone to organizations working on homelessness, mainly given out in large chunks of general operating support. It remains to be seen whether Jeff and/or MacKenzie will remain committed to this cause over time, but Bezos giving so far in this space has been the biggest development for homelessness groups on the funding front in years.
The San Francisco Foundation: The Bay Area is infamous for its astronomical real estate costs, and it isn’t surprising to see local donors prioritize the issue. With its pointed focus on equity and ability to convene local stakeholders, the San Francisco Foundation has worked to build public-private collaborations on housing that involve municipal government. TSFF also leads the policy fund of the Partnership for the Bay’s Future, a region-wide funding initiative centered on inclusivity.
Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: CZI is the lead funder for the Partnership for the Bay’s Future. It’s also a driving force behind many recent attempts to tame the region’s unbridled housing costs. Although critics have good reason to level blame at tech giants for pushing those costs into the stratosphere, CZI and Facebook itself have made moves to address the problem. The Partnership for the Bay’s Future is the most ambitious so far, pulling in hundreds of millions to invest in affordable housing. But even with funding and buy-in from local players like Hewlett, Packard, SVCF and Kaiser Permanente, the question of its long-term impact hinges on what policy changes it can secure, and how quickly.
McKnight Foundation: Housing may be only one part of the Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation’s varied portfolio, but note the following: First, due in part to a five-year-old commitment of $200 million toward impact investing, McKnight has actually been one of the nation’s leading housing funders by the numbers over the past decade. Second, Minneapolis happens to be the first major city in the U.S. to eliminate single-family zoning. While correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, McKnight has helped prop up the local affordable housing and community development ecosystem. And the strength and credibility of that ecosystem factored into advocates’ success in decoupling progressives from NIMBYs—a political alliance of convenience that often holds back zoning reform.
Foundation for the Carolinas: Developments in Minneapolis may indicate that more attention to housing from local actors will lead, over time, to more attention from policymakers—and perhaps the voting public. One funder to watch is the burgeoning Foundation for the Carolinas, which recently rolled out an investment fund to match rising public commitments to affordable housing in Charlotte. The city’s many financial sector firms have been quick to get behind the fund. That demonstrates the potential for positive feedback loops on housing between wealthy local interests, community funders and the public sector—even in cities not known for their housing troubles.
That’s only a short sample of the funders facing down the housing crisis. There are also individual donors like Marc Benioff, who has used his philanthropy and platform to champion the homeless in the Bay Area. Or the late Paul Allen, who committed millions to reducing homelessness in Seattle before his death. The Seattle area is also the focal point for a major housing initiative by Microsoft, as well as grantmaking by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focused on homelessness among families. In Chicago, the MacArthur Foundation has been a significant private player on housing through its impact investing.
Increasingly, healthcare firms and health legacy foundations have followed the lead of funders Robert Wood Johnson and Kresge by investing in housing as a key determinant of health. Donor collaboratives and partnerships are also tackling the problem. They include Funders for Housing and Opportunity, dedicated to narrative change around housing, and Living Cities, where a long history of community development funding informs a present-day push to center racial equity in local governance.
In the end, the concentration of wealth and talent in urban hubs poses barriers to “solving” the housing crisis that only bold policy shifts can address. People want to move to dynamic cities, after all. But prevailing NIMBY (“not-in-my-backyard”) politics and the racialized legacy of historical redlining, among other factors, are stamped onto America’s metros, holding back the supply of homes for everyone but the affluent. And let’s not forget that there’s a housing crisis for low-income people everywhere, not just in the hottest markets.
Despite all that, what’s politically possible can change quicker than we think. Minneapolis’ decision to do away with single-family zoning was unprecedented in a major city. And in a groundbreaking move, Oregon just effectively eliminated single-family zoning statewide. After years of practically no movement, policymakers are awakening to the gravity of the housing crisis and its relevance to the voting public.
In countries like Japan, zoning and housing regulation are matters of national policy. Here in the U.S., policymakers need to navigate the housing challenge in the states and localities. On that level, at least, philanthropy can play a valuable role by supporting equitable development models and sustaining the right advocates. Whether that will be enough to tip the scale in favor of large-scale inclusive housing development is anyone’s guess. But one thing is certain: Stop-gap measures won’t cut it. The housing crisis demands bold action.