Ford, Robert Wood Johnson foundations fund tenant clout

Two of the nation’s wealthiest foundations have created a new $7.5 million fund to help give tenants more say in housing matters, as millions of Americans struggle to make rent and face possible eviction as a result of the pandemic.

The HouseUS Fund, supported by the Ford and Robert Wood Johnson foundations has committed about $1.6 million this year to grassroots organizations that are working to help people stay in their homes. The fund will also support groups that advocate to provide renters with access to lawyers and eliminate certain late fees and penalties levied by landlords, among other things.

With a goal of raising a total of $20 million, the fund’s co-directors, Syma Mirza and Kevin Simowitz, say HouseUS will not focus on providing low-interest loans or grants to help reduce risk for lenders that finance homes for low-income residents, things that philanthropy has often done to support affordable housing. Instead, the co-directors would like to help tenants organize and have more say in securing a place to live for the long run.

“This fund is not about building housing or building homes, it’s about building power,” Mirza says. “We are looking at the broader definition of housing and approaching it as a right rather than a commodity.”

Adds Simowitz: “Homeowners and landlords do pretty well in the way that housing policy is set up right now.” The fund, he says, “is really about making sure the tenants have at least equal power.”

The fund’s grantees include nonprofits in 10 states and include Colorado Homes for All, the Florida Housing Justice Alliance, and the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance.

Simowitz says the fund doesn’t have a list of national policy priorities, but securing a national Tenants Bill of Rights would be a good start. Such a policy could do things like provide protection from eviction and spell out rules governing rental increases. It could also allow renters to organize into a union without landlord interference and make it easier for renters to purchase buildings when landlords put them on the market. Organizations supported by the fund have also promoted the creation of community land trusts that allow people in a neighborhood to create a nonprofit to purchase housing developments and preserve them as affordable housing.

According to July Census Bureau findings tabulated by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 16% of renters in the United States, or 11.4 million adults, are behind on their housing payments, showing signs of improvement since January 2021, when an estimated 15 million people were behind.

The problem is worse among people of color. Nearly one in four Black renters is behind on payments, and almost one in four Latino, Asian, and Native Americans were not caught up on payments, compared with just over one in 10 white renters.

The federal government has made more than $46 billion available through the Emergency Rental Assistance program. But less than 10 percent of that had actually gone to directly help renters through the end of June.

As HouseUS works to support more tenants’ right groups, other philanthropic efforts are underway to ensure the federal money is put to good use.

Susan Thomas, president of the Melville Charitable Trust in Connecticut, is leading an effort called the Partnership for Equitable and Resilient Communities, in which nonprofit leaders will work with federal agencies to help steer the distribution of $379 billion in federal assistance earmarked for housing and homelessness through several pandemic relief acts.

The partnership will work with local groups throughout the nation to design plans for how to distribute the federal money equitably and help groups that receive federal funds evaluate their impact. How the partnership will work, including which foundations will join and which geographic locations will serve as test cases, is still being worked out, Thomas says.

Typically, federal funds are announced and local governments and nonprofits “scramble” to figure out how to spend,” Thomas says.

“We can’t have that. We know money is coming in. So we need to think about the comprehensive plan. We need to think about what the federal dollars are able to do with what they’re not able to do. And philanthropy needs to organize around filling those gaps.”

In 2017, Melville created Funders for Housing and Opportunity, a pooled fund with a goal of making $10 million in grants over three years. Both Ford and Robert Wood Johnson joined the effort, along with seven other foundations. Since its creation, a few grant makers, including the Ford, Gates, and MacArthur foundations, have dropped out of the effort. But the fund’s donors have grown to 12, and this year it plans to make $4.6 million in grants, down slightly from the $5.7 million in grants it made last year.

Thomas is convinced that the fund’s grantees have helped make people aware of the housing crisis in the United States. The Biden administration’s focus on Covid recovery gives her hope for progress on the issue.

“We have an administration now that has housing as one of its top priorities,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to go into partnership with the administration — because we don’t have to convince them, and that’s half the battle.”

HouseUS’s Simowitz isn’t convinced that headway can be made without a big shift in how foundations work to advance housing issues.

“Philanthropy’s approaches have traditionally been too small in their thinking about what the possible policy solution could be,” he says. “They rely on kind of working within the system that we have instead of imagining what it would take to build a new one together.”

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Alex Daniels is a senior reporter at the Chronicle. Email: alex.daniels@philanthropy.com. The AP and the Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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