One of the biggest challenges facing communities across the United States is skyrocketing rent. For a long time, people earning minimum wage have found it difficult—if not impossible—to buy a home, and the situation has only become worse. Housing affordability remains an issue not only in larger cities, but also in small town across the country. The issues stemming from a lack of affordable housing have led a number of prominent philanthropists to commit to solving this problem, including Jeff Bezos, who recently created a massive housing fund.
Philanthropic organizations are still searching for an ideal way of addressing the problem of rising housing costs, mostly due to the sheer size of the issue. However, a number of them have stepped up to try new approaches because of the serious ramifications of the issue, most notably the problem of homelessness. Some funders have joined forces to advocate for a more systemic approach to the problem, including Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO). The new organization, which includes several of the largest foundations in the United States, focuses largely on economic mobility as a means of solving the issue. Other collaborations are pushing for the construction of more housing to drive down the cost of rent.
A Wide Range of Philanthropic Players Are Tackling Housing
People may be surprised to learn that some of the biggest players in the fight for affordable housing are actually local healthcare nonprofits, particularly conversion foundations. These organizations understand the downstream ramifications of unaffordable housing, particularly when families need to choose between buying medicine and paying rent, or even healthy food or rent. Housing is one of the most important social determinants of health, so by investing in it, these organizations take an upstream approach to promoting wellness in their communities. Foundations committed to impact grantmaking have also become heavily involved in the housing issue because of the potential for investment that exists. The returns from these investments can in turn fuel more housing projects.
Some corporate grantmakers have also become involved in working to solve the housing problem, especially in areas where a lack of affordable housing has slowed economic growth, such as in Silicon Valley and other places with high rates of homelessness, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. The issue of homelessness has caused a number of residents to call for change. Recent cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget have left a large population at risk. HUD subsidizes housing for millions of people, a critically important service considering that a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that minimum-wage earners cannot afford a two-bedroom home anywhere in the United States.
The Potential Impact of Hyperlocal Work on Housing Affordability
In some places, hyperlocal organizations have stepped up to deal with the issue in their immediate communities. For example, the Orcas Island Community Foundation (OICF) serves one of the San Juan Islands on the northwest coast of Washington. In Washington, individuals need to earn nearly $27 per hour and work full time to afford a two-bedroom home while refraining from spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Unfortunately, the minimum wage in the state is $11.50, not even half of what is needed. In other words, two adults working full time at minimum wage still could not afford a two-bedroom unit. This year, OICF granted $250,000 to the OPAL Community Land Trust for its April’s Grove project. The project will provide 45 rental townhomes of different sizes with regulated rent to ensure affordability within the Orcas community.
In addition to funding the April’s Grove project, OICF has also embraced policy advocacy as a means of working toward a long-term solution. The organization officially endorsed the Affordable Housing Real Estate Excise Tax, which appeared on the fall ballot in San Juan County. Voters approved the measure, which levies a 0.5 percent tax on real estate transactions to provide support for more affordable housing. The revenue generated by this tax will help the county to increase the amount of resources available to spearhead future affordable housing projects and create a fund to help individuals pay for repairs on existing homes. This sort of local advocacy drives important conversations about housing affordability directly in communities and could lead to multi-sector housing reform.
Moving from National Advocacy to a Community-Based Effort
Advocacy work most often comes from national and regional players. For example, FHO has undertaken a number of advocacy projects to help facilitate economic mobility on a national level. One of the best examples of an organization working at the regional level is the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which has consistently joined policy battles related to housing in the area. Moreover, hyperlocal organizations like OICF can help to highlight the impact that these issues have for everyday people and encourage a stronger push from local residents for more government attention when it comes to addressing housing affordability. Moving forward, more local organizations may become involved in addressing the issue and mobilizing community members to call for change.