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Exploring our role in making housing more affordable for working Californians

Irvine’s focus is a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically. Our main initiatives so far in pursuit of this goal relate to income: connecting more Californians to higher-wage jobs (Better Careers) and supporting the organizing of low-wage workers to advocate for their rights and fight wage theft (Fair Work).

As part of this and other work, we are in conversations with grantees, working people, and leaders across the state learning about the challenges and opportunities facing Californians today. Again and again, Californians’ single-largest expense came up: housing.

Bringing down housing costs could increase the economic power of millions of low-wage workers, so Irvine is exploring what role we could play. This month we are sharing some of what we’re learning from a report by Baird + Driskell Community Planning we funded.

Why housing

Housing costs are far outpacing wages, forcing workers to spend more of their income on rent and leaving too little to pay for food, healthcare, and utilities.

Fewer workers can afford to live where they work. Longer commutes increase traffic and pollution and cut into every aspect of life: working, spending time with friends and family, or getting involved in the community. For workers in many parts of the state, longer commutes add to the already high cost of transportation and childcare, further straining budgets.

The state’s housing crisis also hits people of color particularly hard. Historical, deliberately discriminatory policies and practices, such as redlining, created segregated communities and effectively barred communities of color (especially African Americans) from owning homes. This has made it harder for generations of people of color to get ahead.

As high housing prices affect more people, middle-income Californians are moving into formerly redlined, lower-cost neighborhoods. Working families, mostly people of color, can no longer afford the rent — or are evicted — in neighborhoods they’ve lived in for years, splintering communities and putting some on a path to homelessness.

Polling and recent legislative action have shown that Californians across the state want action to increase housing affordability.

What Irvine is doing

We are far from alone in our concern. There are many emerging efforts at the state and local level, supported by public, private, and philanthropic stakeholders, to find – and fund – solutions. But, housing is a complex, multi-faceted issue. In such a crowded field, we feel it’s important to take the time to listen, learn, and do the research to understand how housing fits within our mission and where our resources can have the most impact.

We have made a few exploratory grants to increase our understanding of the field and are currently focused on learning more about the potential of advocacy, innovation, and strategic communications to address the housing issue. Among our current pilot grantees are Housing California to support the development and expansion of their Residents United Network in the Central Valley and Inland Empire, Terner Center for Housing Innovation to support a pilot cohort of social entrepreneurs developing promising solutions to lowering housing costs, and Fund for an Inclusive California to strengthen statewide grassroots infrastructure and support housing justice work, particularly in regions where families who earn low wages struggle the most to find safe, affordable housing. We will make a small number of additional grants in early 2020 to round out our learning.

We also funded Baird + Driskell Community Planning to create a California Housing Landscape Report. This research benefited from a review of previous studies and conversations with more than 30 housing leaders throughout the state, including nonprofit affordable housing organizations, family and community foundations, and university research institutions.

The report is an outline of the current affordable housing landscape, broken into three separate but interrelated sections:

  • Background and Challenges is an overview of California’s current housing conditions, including a primer on the basics of affordable housing and a list of 10 key housing themes that emerged.
  • Strategic Opportunities and 10 Big Ideas suggests what philanthropy can do to boost opportunities for more affordable housing.
  • Key Levers and Resources lays out 24 areas or actions that policymakers, city planners, developers, and others can take to create more housing.

We hope policymakers, funders, and housing advocates will find the report helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of California’s housing challenges and potential solutions.

We are looking forward to engaging with those addressing housing affordability in the state. With our focus on ensuring low-wage Californians have the power to advance economically, we are deeply curious about how power shows up in housing, how renters build power, and how all low-wage Californians can have agency in how and where housing is built and preserved. We will continue to share what we learn as we determine if and how our resources could make an impact in the lives of working Californians.