Urban Institute Awarded $5 Million Grant to Support Communities in Reducing Disparate Impact of Pandemic on People of Color and Breaking Link between Housing Instability and Incarceration

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WASHINGTON, DC, July 30, 2021 — The Urban Institute announced today that it has been awarded a $5 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for a new initiative aimed at reducing the disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of color and breaking the link between housing instability and jail incarceration, as well as recidivism. Urban will sub-award approximately $3.2 million directly to partner sites that will engage with community members to drive the development of strategies to achieve this goal.

Funding for the Equitable Housing Demonstration Project is part of roughly $82 million in new Equitable Recovery grants centered on advancing racial and ethnic justice that MacArthur has issued to organizations around the world in response to the crises of the pandemic and racial inequity.

“The goal of the Equitable Housing Demonstration Project is to reduce the disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities and people, particularly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, through strategies designed to mitigate the harms caused by the criminal justice system and improve housing stability,” said Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell. “Evidence shows that there are multiple connections between the risks associated with COVID-19, justice-system involvement, and housing instability. Our multidisciplinary team looks forward to supporting local communities across the country as they work to address these interrelated issues.” 

This three-year project will advance locally driven solutions that break the links across housing instability, jail incarceration, and the disparate impact of the pandemic. As the coordinator and technical assistance provider for the initiative, the Urban team will support up to four sites that will work to expand the range of housing options for people involved with the justice system, who are more likely to experience housing instability. In addition to the $3.2 million in grant funds, the sites will have access to a total of $15 million in program-related investment from MacArthur to use for their housing solutions. Unlike grants, which don't typically require a return on investment, philanthropies make program-related investments with an expectation of small, below-market rates of return.

By the end of the initiative, each site will have established new justice, housing, human-service, and health partnerships that break down local silos and foster systems change. Leveraging these partnerships, the sites will design strategies directed by community members and their perceptions of local needs that blend grant and investment resources to improve housing stability and reduce jail use and justice involvement.

“This opportunity is critical now because the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a bright light on the harms of jail stays, including short ones, and of housing instability and how those harms and the pandemic itself disproportionally impact communities of color,” said Kelly Walsh, a principal policy associate in Urban’s Research to Action Lab and Justice Policy Center, who is leading the project. “We hope to support locally driven, replicable models that ultimately contribute to greater housing stability and a reduced criminal justice footprint around the country.”

Even before the pandemic, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities were disproportionally impacted by both the criminal justice system and housing instability. People of color—particularly Black men—are incarcerated at much higher rates than their white counterparts, and the pandemic created new risks associated with jail stays. At the peak of the pandemic, prisons and jails represented 44 of the top 50 COVID-19 clusters in the United States.

Securing affordable, stable housing can be more difficult for households of color who face historical segregation in federal policies, discriminatory practices in lending and renting, and few protections or enforcement of existing fair housing laws. Because of systemic issues such as housing segregation, unemployment, and environmental degradation, Black people are two times more likely than white people, and Latinx people 2.3 times more likely, to die from COVID-19.

Research has also shown that severe housing instability, in the form of chronic homelessness, can increase a person’s risk of becoming involved with the justice system because many behaviors associated with homelessness, such as sleeping, sitting, and asking for money/resources in public spaces, have been criminalized. Nationally, researchers have found that someone in jail is between 7.5 and 11.3 times more likely to have been homeless than someone with no history of jail incarceration, and in some places the rate is much higher.

“This work will be grounded in a goal, not a single program,” said Walsh. “The investment strategies will come from local stakeholders and the communities most affected by police interactions, arrests, and jail stays. We’re excited to provide support and coordination to help foster local decisionmaking and the implementation of housing solutions that can improve outcomes for people and reduce the harms that come from criminal justice system contact.”

About the Urban Institute

The nonprofit Urban Institute is a leading research organization dedicated to developing evidence-based insights that improve people’s lives and strengthen communities. For 50 years, Urban has been the trusted source for rigorous analysis of complex social and economic issues; strategic advice to policymakers, philanthropists, and practitioners; and new, promising ideas that expand opportunities for all. Our work inspires effective decisions that advance fairness and enhance the well-being of people and places