Photo: Peek Creative Collective/shutterstock
Photo: Peek Creative Collective/shutterstock

What can philanthropy do when crises compound and underfunded needs grow even more urgent, with bleak prospects to come? Whatever their giving priorities, that’s a question a lot of funders have asked themselves in 2020, and it’s especially apt for housing funders.

Even before COVID-19, most of the field agreed that America’s shortage of affordable housing constituted a crisis. Nearly 11 million renter households were paying over 50% of their income in rent at the beginning of the year, with another 10 million or so paying over 30%. Eviction was rampant, coming at a rate of seven per minute across the nation in 2016, in the middle of a much-lauded economic recovery. Predictably, the impact of the pre-COVID affordable housing crisis followed familiar patterns of inequity, hitting low-income people of color the hardest.

Philanthropy wasn’t sitting idly by. The pre-COVID housing crisis provoked a range of grantmaker responses, including attacking chronic homelessness, funding narrative change and policy advocacy, and finding new ways to document the human toll of housing insecurity. But despite what it has accomplished, housing philanthropy still faces the fundamental problem of its own puniness next to the magnitude of need. As many grantmakers will attest, there’s just not enough philanthropic money out there to get a lasting handle on homelessness, let alone solve the affordable housing shortage.

COVID, of course, has magnified the potential need to a terrifying degree. That’s why some housing philanthropy advocates weren’t all that thrilled when the federal government’s recent national eviction moratorium—effective through the end of the year—called on private funders to fill gaps while failing to commit any money for assistance to renters and small landlords.

“There will be an aftermath that none of us anticipated and can’t even imagine,” said Susan Thomas, president of the Melville Charitable Trust. “Philanthropy can’t repair this. Our dollars are limited compared to the resources of the federal government.”

At the same time, there’s a great deal that housing funders like Melville can and are doing to steer housing policy in a more resilient and sustainable direction, while managing near-term pandemic responses. Here’s an overview of how the space is responding and adapting during a tumultuous time.

An Evolving Field

Housing and homelessness funding were already evolving in the years leading up to COVID-19, and that evolution is set to quicken. While traditional priorities like neighborhood-level community development or homeless shelters are still important, housing is more widely understood these days as just one piece of a broader confluence of factors that shape how much health, wealth and opportunity Americans will enjoy throughout their lives. As such, major funders not typically known for a focus on housing have found themselves plying these waters.

The housing-health nexus, in particular, has become intensely relevant during the pandemic. “Housing and sheltering in place are the best defense we have during this pandemic. Unhoused or unstably housed people are more likely to have chronic medical issues that put them at higher risk for serious illness or death from COVID-19,” said Jeanne Fekade-Sellassie, who heads Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO).

Founded in 2018 by a who’s-who of major housing funders, FHO is a key strategic clearinghouse for philanthropy’s response at the intersection of homelessness, housing insecurity and COVID-19. The funders involved include veteran housing philanthropies like Melville and Hilton, as well as left-leaning mainstays like Ford, JPB and Kresge. Then there’s Annie E. Casey, Robert Wood Johnson, the Oak Foundation, the Weinberg Foundation, the Ballmer Group and Wells Fargo.

Another, older organization playing a coordinating role is Funders Together to End Homelessness, the most prominent philanthropic affinity group tackling housing inequity. This spring, Funders Together assembled a substantial set of resources for COVID-19 response as well as short- and long-term recommendations for housing funders during the pandemic.

Between them, Funders Together and FHO have done a lot to recognize and promote two more trends in housing philanthropy: changing dominant narratives about housing and centering racial justice. Amanda Andere, CEO of Funders Together, wants to shift the notion that homelessness is an individual problem toward a more holistic idea of housing as a public good. Given the stark realities of COVID, she said, “there’s a growing movement among funders who might now understand the intricacies of homelessness, who understand structural issues related to affordability.”

The events of 2020 have hammered home the fact that racial inequity is one of the deepest structural problems in the United States, and Funders Together is active on that front, as well. “When the rest of the country had an awakening and responded to an uprising related to the public lynchings we witnessed, we’re most proud of our members who’d already been doing that work,” Andere said. They include the foundations (and a few corporations) involved in Funders Together’s program Foundations for Racial Equity, a two-year cohort of grantmakers taking a deep dive on responding to systemic racism in the housing world.

From Crisis Mode to Systemic Change

During the initial months of the pandemic, funders scrambled to balance those longer-view priorities with the urgent need to keep people housed. One immediate concern at the Melville Charitable Trust was to keep existing grantees whole. Despite the market volatility, Thomas said, Melville did what a number of other funders did and bumped up its grant spending and streamlined the application process to reduce grantee workload. But over the longer term, Melville wants to continue prioritizing work that addresses fundamental problems.

“We began to think about our funding approach, [which centers] systemic change, slowly shifting one foot toward prevention, and digging into the root causes of homelessness, and we realized that staying the course is more important than ever,” Thomas said.

FHO, which makes grants of its own, has taken a similar dual approach, funding local response efforts alongside national advocacy for greater attention to racial equity in the allocation of federal and state emergency funds. All told, FHO has supported 23 direct response efforts on the local level. They include COVID response work by the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center to halt evictions and find space for unhoused people in hotels; efforts by StreetRoots to distribute supplies to homeless people in Portland, Oregon; and Power4STL’s provision of hygiene services and personal protective equipment to people experiencing homelessness in St. Louis.

One of the more uplifting tales to emerge from COVID is the speed at which local philanthropies and charities, often in partnership with local governments, were able to get people into emergency shelters and keep more people from becoming homeless amid a confusing flurry of variably enforced eviction moratoria.

“There was an incredible amount of political will, leveraged by philanthropy, to immediately put people into housing in a matter of days. Things we’d been pushing for years,” Andere said. Examples are too numerous to recount, but they encompass everything from coordinated efforts by national nonprofits to grassroots fundraising campaigns that gained steam when bigger regional donors joined in.

In the end, however, those measures are temporary. The factors underlying homelessness and housing insecurity are permanent, at least if current conditions persist. But one positive effect of such vast economic displacement—and the encouraging speed at which local homelessness policies shifted as the pandemic bore down—is that it has funders thinking bolder. According to Andere, philanthropy has led from behind, helping people and organizations “pull out of crisis mode and think about strategy.”

Back in 2008 and 2009, as the mortgage crisis kicked off a great recession, “philanthropy didn’t step up on housing the way it could have,” said Bill Pitkin, a social justice advocate and Inside Philanthropy contributor who formerly headed domestic programs at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. There’s been more coordination during the current crisis around how to take advantage of opportunities for impact, he said.

In a similar vein, Andere highlighted the need to do a better job this time of centering resources around the communities most affected, and reckoning with public-sector disinvestment in smart, coordinated responses that limit damage when disaster strikes. “The question should be, why do we have to rush to get people safely inside in the first place?” she said.

Advocacy and Narrative Change

Where local and place-based funding is concerned (and housing is usually perceived as a local matter), philanthropy keeps falling into an unfortunate trap: funding good, ground-level work that lifts people up, only to see that progress erased in a flash when a national crisis like the Great Recession or COVID-19 hits. It’s too early to say for sure, but one gets the sense that more housing funders are getting wise to that pattern.

The current federal eviction moratorium only delays what some have called a tsunami of evictions, which threatens to bring with it a level of displacement and human suffering that dwarfs the last recession. Philanthropy can’t provide direct relief at that scale. One thing it can do is fund policy advocacy and narrative change work to promote better society-wide outcomes, and that’s the path many housing funders are taking as the pandemic grinds on.

One interesting example is the Framework for an Equitable COVID-19 Homelessness Response, funded by FHO and Melville. The goal there is to help communities and jurisdictions make the best possible use of federal relief funds (particularly via the CARES Act) to address homelessness, using a deliberate racial justice lens. The project brings together an impressive collection of advocacy and research organizations including the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Urban Institute. Two former directors of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness are also involved.

“We want to help community leaders to make good decisions, and not just take the fastest or easiest path to spending these funds,” said Ann Oliva, visiting senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Melville’s Thomas reports that the framework has been widely received by governments across the country, was even adopted in amended form by the Canadian government for use up north.

Another new advocacy effort is the Ford Foundation’s partnership with Community Change on the Housing Playbook Project, which just got underway at the start of September. The initiative is casting a wide net for housing policy ideas, prioritizing leaders and advocates who’ve experienced housing insecurity themselves. The plan is to use those submissions to assemble a playbook for bold federal action on housing during the first 100 to 200 days of the next presidential term.

“[Housing] affects so much more in our life than where we sleep at night—it’s the neighborhood where our children grow up and go to school, where we can be close to jobs that put food on the table, where our elders can get the care they need,” said Community Change President Dorian Warren in a press release.

On the narrative change front, FHO is also backing a Housing Justice Narrative Initiative hosted at PolicyLink. Community Change and Race Forward also participated in the project’s first phase, which ran through August and encompassed public opinion research on effective housing justice narratives. According to Thomas, the plan is for that effort to merge with an ongoing Melville-backed homelessness communications research project. The larger campaign will then play out over several years.

Finally, there’s work underway on a new collaborative initiative, the National Coalition for Housing Justice, which will include CBPP and a number of other national organizations working on homelessness. The coalition is still formalizing, and it’s unclear exactly which funders may be involved, but according to CBPP’s Oliva, it will “coordinate advocacy efforts, develop policy recommendations, and leverage our collective tools to ensure that the voice of the unheard is brought to the attention of both lawmakers and the public.” It’s definitely something to watch, given the need to continue building more national, collaborative work across a field once largely isolated by geography.

“Where People Live Matters”

That said, human geography—the places we find ourselves in or sort ourselves into—seems to underlie a lot of this new work. COVID-19 has brutally clarified that the places we inhabit, from state and region down to neighborhood and street, are fundamental determinants of how well we live. Also this year, events have transpired to remind us (for those who needed a reminder) that the legacy of institutionalized racism still molds American cities.

Though they’re often unwilling to fund edgier grassroots activism centered on racial justice, the super-rich types who’ve taken an interest in anti-poverty work do like funding policy-adjacent research. Opportunity Insights and the Eviction Lab are two good examples. In both cases, data is fast accumulating that depicts a nation and housing market still riven by racial inequality and full of danger for those on the losing end. “Where people live matters. We see this amplified today in the COVID-19 crisis, which has such disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx communities,” said Fekade-Sellassie of Funders for Housing and Opportunity.

The sudden normalization of progressive racial justice critiques has been a welcome development for many housing funders who’ve already moved in that direction over the past half-decade. Even leading housing funders from the financial sector, like Wells Fargo, have felt obliged to speak the language of racial justice in a clearer way. Wells Fargo’s involvement with FHO also speaks to that reality. “If funders require a racial justice and equity approach, people will start to incorporate it in their work. And soon, it will be institutionalized as part of normal business,” Oliva said.

The Melville Charitable Trust is one of many funders that have taken this opportunity to look inward and consider how better to center racial equity in their work. As a grantmaker solely focused on ending homelessness, “We thought we were considering that in our response, just because homelessness disproportionately affects Black and brown people,” Thomas said. “But it requires deliberate steps to target [racial injustice] and we need to not be afraid of saying we are prioritizing Black people, Indigenous people and people of color.”

Another relevant development is the recent debut of the Bay Area Homelessness Funders Network, an effort to coordinate grantmaking in one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets. Formed by Funders Together and Northern California Grantmakers, the network intends to prioritize racial justice and to uplift grassroots leaders and advocates with lived experience. Current advisors include representatives from CZI, Tipping Point Community, the Crankstart Foundation and the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the ongoing national reckoning around racial justice will change how housing philanthropy flows in a lasting way, especially given staffers’ qualms about the commitment of the top brass and persistent underfunding of efforts to tackle racial segregation. At the very least, the events of 2020 seem to be accelerating trends toward a more integrated, policy-focused approach, especially among leading funders. And policy is where it’s at right now: Just look at how many of these efforts aim to influence federal spending. It’s like Thomas said, referring to U.S. housing troubles at large: “It’s not like we don’t have the money. We are choosing to spend it differently.”

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