How the Gates Foundation Tackles Housing Issues

Think of the Gates Foundation and housing is probably not an issue that comes to mind. But the foundation has actually spent millions to reduce homelessness and boost affordable housing options for low-income people, with nearly all this money going to support work in Washington State. 

The Gates Foundation began donating to housing initiatives in Washington in 2000, funding the Sound Families Initiative that year with over $1.75 million and a goal of tripling transitional housing and bolstering social services for low-income families. This program received a total of $40 million dollars over eight years from Gates, and helped develop 1,400 transitional homes for families.

In more recent years, Gates has worked directly with county housing authorities, just like the foundation often works with public agencies in other issue areas. In 2013, Snohomish, Pierce, and King counties all received funding. We're seeing more such direct grants to government agencies these days, both in the housing sector and in other fields. 

But the Gates Foundation also has a close nonprofit partner for its housing work, the Seattle-based organization Building Changes, which has received nearly $20 million in grants from Gates since 2011. 

That level of support, for just one group working on one of the foundation's lower-profile areas, is a reminder of just what a behemoth the Gates Foundation is.

So is all that muscle actually moving the needle on housing and homelessness issues in Washington State? That's hard to say, but things are definitely heading in the right direction. 

A HUD analysis found family homelessness in Washington State fell by 22.6 percent in 2012 and 2013, one of the largest decreases nationally.

But that same report found that there were still 7,000 people in Washington families who were homeless in 2013, so clearly much remains to be done. And Gates, like other funders, is pushing for closer collaboration between government and nonprofits to tackle this issue. The foundation has identified a five-prong plan as part of that push for better collaboration:

  • Prevention: Support and emergency funding for families so they don’t lose housing.
  • Coordinated Entry: One-stop shopping for housing assistance.
  • Rapid Housing Placement: Real housing placement, not just shelter placement.
  • Tailored Programs: Identifying individual family needs and directing resources to that need.
  • Economic Opportunity: Resolving the underlying issues of unemployment as a prime cause of homelessness.

While the Gates Foundation has historically dedicated much of its U.S. mission to initiatives aimed at improving education, there's definitely a big link between that area and the housing issue, which is one big reason Gates is targeting housing. Over time, the foundation has discovered that when you drill down on education problems, housing instability is often part of the reason that kids have challenges in school.

The Gates Foundation is betting that if it can address housing problems in Washington State, one area that work will pay dividends is in higher student achievement.