Affordable Housing Initiative: Changing the statewide conversation around housing issues

Oregon State Representative for District 47 Diego Hernandez responds to questions posed from immigrant community leaders at Elders in Action’s Housing Alliance forum.

Meyer's efforts to help better inform and align work around affordable housing in Oregon are a good example of how philanthropic funders can deepen their impact. A recently completed evaluation of 2017 efforts under our Affordable Housing Initiative (AHI) describes the effectiveness, results, limitations and lessons learned from AHI grants related to advocacy, policy and systems change.

Kristina Smock Consulting prepared the evaluation based on a review of grantees' report documents, interviews with key partners involved in affordable housing and related work, and discussions with Meyer staff.

Meyer began the Affordable Housing Initiative in 2008 in part because we recognized that housing is an essential foundation for thriving families and equitable communities, and we wanted to engage in a more focused and systems-based way with partners working on housing issues. In recent years the statewide shortage of affordable housing (even for people working full time), the vulnerability of low-income households to eviction and a rise in homelessness have become front-page issues.

Meyer always understood that dollar-wise we are a small part of the puzzle when it comes to addressing those issues and that helping inform and influence public policy and larger systems issues are where we can make the most difference.

So how did that work out last year? The full report is worth reading, but we think key takeaways include:

  • Foundations and philanthropic funders clearly can support important policy and advocacy efforts without running afoul of legal constraints on lobbying.
  • Targeted grants have successfully elevated and amplified the voices of low-income Oregonians most affected by housing issues, including people of color and culturally specific organizations.
  • There are longer-term and more immediate and tangible targets in the area of policy and systems-change and it's important to work on both tracks.

Meyer-supported housing advocacy saw real wins in 2017, including a commitment from the state of Oregon of an additional $150 million for affordable housing and new policy initiatives from the state around preservation and manufactured housing. At the local level, several Oregon cities adopted construction excise taxes to support affordable housing and are engaged in lively debates about reducing unnecessary land use and zoning barriers to housing development. Stronger tenant protections and reform of the mortgage interest deduction fell just short in the Legislature, but both of those issues (and the advocates urging positive change) will surely be back.

Meyer also funded several collaborative projects across the state attempting to better align and coordinate housing and services, including areas such as health care, diverting families from foster care and early learning.

The report also highlights some of the grass-roots work Meyer has supported to help mobilize, organize and connect specific communities suffering most from the state's lack of affordable housing, such as Community Alliance of Tenants, Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, Unite Oregon and the Urban League of Portland.

Looking forward, we take to heart some of the lessons and challenges you'll see in the report:

  • Strengthening advocacy is a long-term project: doing it right requires a sustained, multi-year commitment and reasonable expectations about the pace of change and what "outcomes" can be easily documented. What we're really trying to build is a durable and effective constituency around the state to support affordable housing issues emerging from different communities.
  • Aligning systems is easier said than done, and we're still in a learning mode about the best ways to support collaboration across silos, re-structure incentives and overcome barriers to sharing data, resources and power.
  • External/environmental conditions matter: despite our efforts, the steep rise in housing costs and changes in federal policy make this work (and opportunities for leverage and collaboration) even more urgent.
  • Research and evaluation are important in this work: understanding what kind of data and evidence motivates decision-makers and funding it is essential to effective advocacy!
  • Meyer should be alert to opportunities to collaborate more with other funders; while advocacy can be a touchy or intimidating area for some organizations, more funders are hearing urgent messages around housing issues from their own stakeholders and we can do more to find areas where our priorities overlap with others.

As the Affordable Housing Initiative's current iteration wraps up in 2019, we expect to share more evaluation and reflection on the past five years and how that shapes Meyer housing efforts going forward. As always, we welcome your thoughts and suggestions on how we can be more effective and responsive partners!

–– Michael