On September 7th, Funders Together hosted a webinar called "Housing Insecurity is an Economics Problem: Connecting Economic and Housing Justice" in conjunction with Funders for Housing and Opportunity, Economic Opportunity Funders, and the Tax Equity Funders Network. In her reflection, Christina Ostmeyer from Funders for Housing and Opportunity re-iterates how solving housing insecurity is ultimately linked with dismantling and transforming our current economic systems, to build towards a more just future.
You live in an apartment that needs repairs, but can barely afford to make rent even though you work two jobs. Your landlord just told you rents are going up next year, while your employer is cutting your shifts.
This is the experience of far too many people in the U.S., as median rents increased a staggering 18% while average incomes increased just over 3% from 2001 to 2021. In fact, there is not a single county in the U.S. where you can afford a modest 2-bedroom apartment while earning minimum wage–and housing and utilities account for U.S. residents’ largest monthly expense. After many consecutive years of decline, homelessness has been on the rise, with dramatic increases of people living unsheltered. Countless more in the U.S. are just one financial crisis away from losing their housing as the cost of rent skyrockets in most communities. These are our neighbors. This is us.
Funders Together co-hosts "Housing Insecurity is an Economics Problem: Connecting Economic and Housing Justice"
Last month, Funders Together to End Homelessness, Funders for Housing and Opportunity, Economic Opportunity Funders, and the Tax Equity Funders Network brought philanthropy together to explore how housing insecurity is an economic issue. During the webinar, partners outlined how racial and housing justice are inseparable and at the core of building an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy.
We can’t address housing affordability without fair wages and vice versa–and we can’t move forward solutions on either front without acknowledging and redressing how “the very basis of our economy was built on the exploitation of both land and labor,” said Michael Durham, Director of Networks at Funders Together to End Homelessness (FTEH), during the webinar.
Hard-wired into systems and programs at all levels of government and the private sector, generations of policies and practices bolstered white Americans’ stability, wealth, and access to opportunity while concentrating the effects of segregation, displacement, destabilization, gentrification, and poverty on Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color.
Economics of Homelessness and Housing Affordability
Homelessness is a systemic failure and policy choice—not the result of individual choices. Housing insecurity is fundamentally tied to how today’s economic structures have made it so that too many poor and working-class people cannot compete in the housing market despite how hard they work. The financialization of housing is a key contributor to the global rise in homelessness. In a cultural and systemic shift driven by private equity firms and corporations, housing is increasingly treated as a commodity instead of a basic human need. As a result, housing financialization drives housing instability and raises housing prices at all levels.
We live in a world where solving homelessness and housing insecurity is possible, but to do so, we must dismantle our current systems and instead build new ways of being that put people before profit.
Source: Real Home Prices and Fundamentals (Robert Shiller, Irrational Exuberance, 2015)
Structural racism is at the root of both the inception and exacerbation of homelessness and housing unaffordability. Policies and practices from slavery to the dispossession of land to redlining, racial bias and discrimination, overcriminalization, and more have resulted in intergenerational economic disparities and the disproportionate impact of homelessness on people of color, particularly Black and Native Americans. Race is a predictor not only of one’s likelihood to become homeless, but also how long a person may experience homelessness.
To achieve anti-racist and sustainable outcomes, philanthropy and housing advocates must focus on upstream solutions that make our systems more equitable and aim to end homelessness, rather than tinkering at the edges of the problem by focusing on emergency responses. In fact, data from the Corporation for Supportive Housing finds that providing stable, supportive housing in a “housing first” approach costs roughly the same as leaving someone without a home to contend with expensive emergency care and short-term shelter solutions. Offering housing not only improves the well-being of individuals experiencing homelessness but also benefits public systems.
Economic Solutions for Housing Justice
To achieve housing justice, building an economy that redresses past harms is paramount to getting us there. Communities have the solutions, and below are examples of ways to build toward just housing futures.
Reforming tax systems as a tool to undo historic discrimination
“We see the tax code and tax systems as one of our primary tools to undo historic race, ethnic, gender, and ability discrimination and to provide avenues for low- and moderate-income families and communities to thrive,” said Ami Nagle, Co-Director of Economic Opportunity Funders and the Tax Equity Funders Network.
The current tax code rewards homeownership, which is out of reach for many working families, especially people of color. In effect, tax benefits related to homeownership such as the Mortgage Income Deduction disproportionately benefit white residents.
There is a direct route between cash assistance and better housing. The Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and other forms of unrestricted cash put money back in the pockets of low-income families, helping to increase access to stable housing. Interventions like a renters’ tax credit, direct cash assistance, and policies that advance housing as a public good can help offset rental costs and prevent homelessness.
Source: National Housing Preservation Database (2023); American Community Survey 2017–21 by year structure built.
The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), the largest source for funding new affordable housing construction and rehabilitation, is also an important program for increasing the affordable housing supply. But the program would need to expand to meet rising housing needs.
Listening to and supporting the people closest to the problem
Our housing and economic systems are deeply flawed, but it doesn’t have to be this way. When people who are most impacted—BIPOC communities, low-income tenants, and people who are homeless—come together to build power, communities can reimagine and shape a future where we all thrive.
From organizing tenant unions to holding negligent slumlords accountable to advancing local policies like Right to Counsel, just cause eviction ordinances, and more, organizations across the U.S. have made significant progress toward protecting their communities, preventing evictions and homelessness, and increasing economic mobility.
"When a person’s housing is destabilized, everything else in their lives can be destabilized as well,” said Elisa Harrigan, Policy Strategist with Funders for Housing and Opportunity. "There is a strong connection between tenant protections, economic security, and wealth-building opportunities."
Elisa Harrigan from Funders for Housing and Opportunity shares how listening to BIPOC, low-income, and people with lived experience is important to address the issue of homelessness.
Philanthropy has a role to play by directly supporting organizations led by the people who are closest to the problems. “This requires ongoing investment in leadership, advocacy, and movement building,” said Nancy Ramirez Arriaga, former program officer with Meyer Memorial Trust. “[BIPOC communities] already know what isn't working, they're risking the most, and they are eager to implement new solutions.”
The continual injustices we see, particularly for our Black and Indigenous neighbors, are built on a long history of racism and ableism. But the reality is that our country has the resources and we know what works to create the conditions where everyone can live full lives, be safe, be housed, and be healthy. To bring this vision to bear, it is important to shift the mindset of philanthropy to make sure that all funders see the interconnectedness between housing and economic justice instead of stand-alone issues with stand-only solutions. It also takes philanthropy utilizing its influence to be bold and support the building of public and political will that prioritizes justice-oriented solutions instead of ineffective actions that perpetuate harm.
For any in the philanthropic community who are interested in learning more, please contact us about joining our organizations, to benefit from shared learning, exchange of ideas and information across the field, and to align our efforts so we can have a bigger impact on the systems that need to change to prioritize housing justice with a racial justice lens.
Webinar Recording (available to full members)