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MacArthur studies effects of housing dearth

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By Mary Teresa Bitti

Housing isn’t about bricks and mortar.

It’s about people and community, security and opportunity, health and well-being.

That’s the main reason The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is investing $25 million in new research that will look at exactly how housing matters to children, families and communities, says the funder’s president, Jonathan Fanton.

Housing is a top priority for the Chicago-based foundation, which by the end of the decade will have spent $250 million on the issue.

“We believe that housing is important in its own right,” says Fanton.  “But it is also a critical path to other outcomes that we aspire to — better education for kids, better jobs, stable families. But when we look at the evidence base for that assertion, it is incomplete.”

This latest investment is aimed at changing the conversation about housing and elevating the issue’s importance to one of national well-being.

But right now, there is a narrow focus on physical buildings and financing, says Fanton.

“Our goal is to understand it as part of an intricate matrix of factors that are critical to both individual and community well-being, and to build an evidence base that shows that connection,” he says.

SPURRING GOVERNMENT

The hope is that, when presented with that evidence base, government at all levels will step up and devote more resources to creating affordable housing.

That’s a goal shared by the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, which has been working to raise awareness about the problems associated with a lack of affordable housing, and lobbying Congress to establish a National Housing Trust Fund.

“Our goal is to produce and preserve 1.5 million units over the next 10 years that are affordable to extremely poor people, those hardest hit by lack of affordable housing,” says Linda Couch, deputy director of the coalition.

Over the last decade, the U.S. has lost 1 million affordable rental homes and, according to the Center for Housing Studies, for every new low-cost unit built, two were razed, abandoned or turned into condominiums and high-end rentals.

Couch calls the current housing situation a crisis.

“Almost a third of the country, or 95 million Americans, spend more for housing than they can afford or live in substandard conditions,” says Couch.  “It’s a widespread issue and everyone pays for the negative effects of people not being able to afford adequate housing.”

IMPACT OF SHORTAGE

Couch points to a number of impacts, including less money for food, health care and educational supplies, as well as increase in environmental health issues such as stress and asthma.

At the same time, children’s school performance suffers when they are forced to move throughout the school year as their families seek out affordable places to live.

And parents suffer from increased commutes, traffic congestion, limited access to support systems, and in worst-case scenarios, homelessness.

“People generally don’t recognize housing affordability as a problem unless one of two extreme things happen,” says Chris Estes, executive director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition, based in Raleigh. “A hypermarket occurs where you have to be super rich to buy anything. Or, a massive amount of homeless folks end up on street corners.”

Most often it’s a quiet suffering, he says, where people struggle to pay their bills and often fall farther behind because they can’t save.

“Housing is a central issue for economic and community sustainability,” says Estes. “If folks don’t have quality, affordable housing that’s safe, they are going to struggle in myriad other areas.  And that affects everyone.”

g, he says, where people struggle to pay their bills and often fall farther behind because they can’t save. “Housing is a central issue for economic and community sustainability,” says Estes. “If folks don’t have quality, affordable housing that’s safe, they are going to struggle in myriad other areas.  And that affects everyone.”

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