Op-ed: Tackling the Affordable Housing Crisis

As a nation, we are facing crisis after crisis. More than 200,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus—a number that grows steadily each day. Tens of millions of people have lost jobs, and many businesses are shutting their doors. At the same time, recent incidents of police brutality against Black and Brown individuals have put a needed spotlight on the systemic racism that has plagued our society for too long.

Each of these issues—health, poverty, and racial inequity—all intersect at yet another emergency that families are reckoning with nationwide: a widespread shortage of affordable housing.

Right now, Americans all over the country are struggling to pay their rent, with up to 23 million people at risk of eviction. Policy responses to the pandemic—including moratoria on evictions, rent and mortgage forbearance, CARES Act stimulus payments, and federal unemployment insurance—have failed to provide long-lasting solutions, virtually ensuring that the public health crisis will lead to massive displacement and homelessness. All of this disproportionately impacts communities of color, who have been at the mercy of predatory lending and other long-standing systems that reinforce and perpetuate racial inequities.

Even before the pandemic, the research was clear that having access to safe, quality, affordable housing is one of the most powerful social determinants of health. Now, public health is not only threatened by COVID-19, but by the recession that is sure to follow, which in the past prompted private equity to gobble up distressed real estate assets at bargain prices, dramatically increasing rents and deepening the inequities in our nation’s housing system. It is urgent to combat this momentum by preserving and building new affordable housing so this does not happen again.

Our three nonprofit organizations—Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF), Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF), and National Affordable Housing Trust (NAHT)—have come together to do just that. We announced a joint venture today that aims to raise $1 billion within the first five years to build, protect, and preserve approximately 10,000 affordable homes across the country.

We know this is only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a start. And we’re not going to do it in a bubble.

We will leverage the financial instruments of the affordable housing industry to support responsible and just development guided by a commitment to lifting up resident voices and responding to their complex needs—because we understand that housing is so much more than a physical place to live. To truly help families, we need to better understand the issues they face. We will listen to residents about not just what they need to survive, but about what they need to thrive, including child care, education, and public transportation.

Efforts by organizations in this sector to grow and expand have historically been driven entirely by economics. Our transaction supports the long-term sustainability and growth of a mission-first syndicator.

Even before our formal partnership, our three organizations have come together on several initiatives, including the Fund to Preserve Affordable Communities (FPAC), a $100 million collaborative between LIIF, NAHT, and others, that provides acquisition financing to SAHF members. Through FPAC, a $3.3 million acquisition loan was made to The NHP Foundation to preserve the long-term affordability of 120 affordable homes on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

LIIF also provided a range of innovative financing for BRIDGE Housing, a SAHF member and leading-edge developer with a deep, resident-driven approach. This included a $7.5 million loan through FPAC to develop the Monte Vista project in Milpitas, California, consisting of 306 affordable and market-rate apartments, children’s play areas, and a new light-rail stop. For this project, we provided access to flexible acquisition capital to prevent resident displacement, enterprise level capital to support comprehensive redevelopment, and technical assistance to support an on-site child care operator.

Together, we plan to forge new partnerships, such as the $100 million Health & Housing Fund with UnitedHealth Group announced this summer by SAHF and NAHT, to build more than 1,000 new homes for low-income renters over the next two years.

Our new joint venture will scale and expand more projects like these, with a specific focus on supporting the development, preservation, and operation of affordable rental homes serving communities of color.

The time is now to be bold, challenge paradigms, and shift the systemic racism in our housing systems. Existing solutions to the current crisis will not suffice. We need a new model. We must challenge the status quo and shift the power and focus of capital to provide safe, quality, and affordable housing. This will not be an easy or quick process. Long-standing approaches, policies, and systems must be reimagined and strategically rebuilt.

We recognize that we are only three nonprofit organizations in a massive field of affordable housing development, but we hope our new approach influences other organizations to join us on this journey, giving those with shared values who are considering joining forces the courage to make it happen.

Together, we will serve as a nimble alliance, offering a highly coordinated source of both debt and equity that advances equitable outcomes. We will bring together best practices to inform creative financial solutions that champion resident-centric approaches and partnerships. We are in it for the long haul, and we’re dedicated not only to trying to tackle today’s urgent housing needs, but to building more vibrant, robust, and equitable communities in the process.

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