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How Housing Matters

Image of detached single-family homes on a street.

On December 13, 2016, the National Housing Conference hosted the third How Housing Matters Conference in partnership with the Urban Institute, HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, and the Urban Land Institute Terwilliger Center for Housing with sponsorship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Throughout the conference, panelists highlighted the intersectionality of housing with health, education, and employment sectors, and underscored the need for breaking down silos and actively promoting collaboration across sectors.

Cross-Sector Partnerships and Financing

As public subsidies for housing become scarce, there is an increasing need for cross-sector partnerships and innovative funding models to fill in the gaps. During the opening plenary, panelists discussed the vision and work of philanthropic organizations in fostering such cross-sector partnerships and promoting creative financing mechanisms. Kollin Min, senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke about his organization’s role as a “matchmaker,” bringing together school districts and public housing and nonprofit housing providers to benefit students experiencing homelessness. Janis Bowdler, head of community development, small business, and financial capabilities initiatives at JPMorgan Chase & Co., demonstrated how foundations can provide flexible capital resources for Community Development Financial Institutions and other local community development agencies that will allow them to respond swiftly to neighborhood needs.

Describing the Melville Charitable Trust’s work on ending homelessness, Susan Thomas, the foundation’s senior program officer, noted that homelessness is a multisector issue encompassing economic security, education, and health aspects. These aspects have interdependent effects on homelessness and cannot be addressed individually. She noted that collaboration among funders within the philanthropic sector to find common ground as it relates to priorities and goals is essential to tackling complex housing issues. The panelists all emphasized the vital role of data collection and outcome measurement in both forging cross-domain partnerships and informing future work.

Economic Security

Delving deeper into the connection between housing and economic security, a second panel noted that housing instability, whatever the cause, inhibits individuals from attaining success in their everyday lives. Having access to safe and affordable housing allows families to achieve gains in areas such as education and employment that can lead to improved economic mobility. For formerly incarcerated individuals, stable housing offers an opportunity for successful reentry into society. Marie Claire Tran-Leung of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law observed that people who are incarcerated can continue to accrue debts, such as child support payments and fines for traffic violations, that can exacerbate their financial stress. Providing this population with housing and essential services, however, reduces recidivism by offering stability and can save governments money because incarceration is more expensive than providing housing and services.

Jesús Gerena, managing partner at the Family Independence Initiative, observed that empowering families to drive change by involving them in the decisionmaking processes and harnessing their existing strengths and social supports is key to advancing economic mobility. Aaron Gornstein, president and CEO of Preservation of Affordable Housing, added that building lasting relationships with the right community partners to offer services, such as financial coaching, job training, and other traditional supportive services, makes a huge difference for housing providers when it comes to meeting the needs of their residents. Gornstein also identified the Family Self-Sufficiency program as a potential driver of economic success because it offers eligible families a financial incentive to increase their earned income and reduce their dependence on subsidies.

Housing, Education, and Health

Research shows that housing instability can negatively affect education outcomes for children. Chronic absenteeism from school is a significant problem for low-income children, particularly in poor neighborhoods with high crime rates. Just 4 percent of U.S. schools account for one-half of the nation’s chronic absentee students. Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, suggested that walking school bus programs, in which a group of children walk to school accompanied by one or more adults, can be part of a community’s solution to chronic absenteeism. Parental engagement in children’s education is often critical and housing providers like Eden Housing, which offers onsite afterschool programming for residents, can help promote parental involvement by facilitating and building relationships between educators and parents.

At the same time, ensuring access to affordable housing in neighborhoods with high-performing schools is essential to maintaining diversity and achieving equitable education outcomes. Neighborhood schools can be powerful allies in advocating for affordable housing, noted Christie Huck, executive director for City Garden Montessori School. She suggested that establishing regional housing and education planning entities could potentially enable coordination of the now many, varied entities and address disparities in school access.

On the health front, speakers acknowledged that while there is wide recognition of the linkages between housing and health, there is a shortage of impactful programs due to the misalignment of incentives for the various players involved. Jane Graf, president and CEO of Mercy Housing and Catherine Anderson, vice president of State Programs at UnitedHealthcare Community & State, both spoke about the need for aligning these financing incentives to result in cost savings and to change the narrative. Further, Anderson noted that social determinants of health metrics should be incorporated into ways that healthcare systems are evaluated.

Finally, the conference speakers noted that housing advocates need to share case studies of successful interventions. Sharing best practices will advance housing research and inform new and more effective, holistic housing policies.