On February 19, funders from across the country convened at our annual Funders Forum in Oakland. Melissa Stafford Jones, Executive Director at the Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation, attended the Funders Forum and walked away ruminating on the disparities between income and affordable housing and steps funders can take to address these disparities.
Numbers never tell the whole story, especially when it comes to issues core to our humanity like homelessness. But what struck me during last month’s Funders Together to End Homelessness Annual Funders Forum is the power of numbers to help us understand the complex challenges we face by focusing on the basic math.
The current math facing many individuals and families:
Wages/Income < Income Needed to Afford Housing
We know that homelessness and the lack of affordable housing are complex with multiple factors, root causes, systems, and past and present inequities contributing to the crisis we face today. Increasingly though, individuals and families in our communities who experience homelessness and lack stable housing face those circumstances because the math just doesn’t add up. Wages and income for many individuals and families are not high enough to afford the cost of market rate housing. And this is even more pronounced for people of color whose wages are lower on average than white households.
The imbalance between income and housing costs is growing. In California, wages have increased 2% for low and mid-wage workers over the last decade while median household rent has increased 16%. Tomiquia Moss, Founder and CEO of All Home, noted during the Funders Forum that 50% of persons experiencing homelessness in Oakland today were not homeless two years ago.
We know we must build more affordable housing and more housing overall; that we can more fully integrate health and housing and increase access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment for those seeking those critical services; and that we must continue to advance the use of evidence-based practices that we know work and remain nimble to pursue new approaches and solutions that could make a difference. Funders also recognize it’s critical to tackle underlying systemic and policy issues and the structural racism that fuel the current crisis and change the narrative around homelessness and affordable housing so that we set the stage for implementation of approaches that work.
We also need to address the immediate needs of the unsheltered. Many communities, leaders, and funders have worked incredibly hard to successfully keep focus on the long-term work of permanent, stable housing for those experiencing homelessness since we know that no amount of temporary shelter or supportive services on their own end homelessness. With the growing numbers of our fellow community members living unsheltered, we, as funders, have an opportunity to model the necessity of taking short-term action to address the suffering of the unsheltered while not losing sight of the shared commitment of everyone having a home and keeping the work and momentum going to make housing a reality. At the Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation, we’ve committed to funding homeless services that are connected to the community’s overall coordinated system and that support permanent, stable housing. Through our approach, we hope to signal the importance of connecting and coordinating with the overarching system and to encourage organizations to work toward outcomes that are directly tied to housing.
We can also pause, see, and act on the fundamental economic reality that hundreds of thousands of individuals and families in our nation do not have income at levels now or in the foreseeable future that will allow them to afford housing. Supporting individuals and families to build and utilize their skills and gain access to jobs at higher wage levels that will help them afford the cost of housing is fundamental, as is addressing the structural barriers and inequities that often prevent people from earning enough to afford housing. But many individuals and families will not have the opportunity to earn enough to afford market rate housing given the current wage and housing cost trends. Especially given that people of color are paid less than their white counterparts, further widening the racial wealth gap.
As funders, we can help lift up this reality and help others see and understand the math. We can work together and with partners to identify ways to balance the current imbalanced equation of income and housing costs to prevent families barely able to afford housing from becoming homeless and help families experiencing homelessness to have the financial support they need to get back to and stay in housing. The math is quite simple and perhaps approaches equally straight-forward could be added to our collective efforts.
Melissa Stafford Jones is Executive Director of the Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation, whose mission is to enhance the vibrancy and quality of life for the residents of Contra Costa County through a focus on education, strengthening families, and arts and culture. She is a mission-driven leader who is passionate about improving the lives and well-being of individuals, families and communities, particularly those who are most underserved.
Dive Deeper: Funders Together has resources available on how to advance this work including how funders can engage in policy and systems change efforts in our Funders Resources section!