The blog of the Urban Institute
October 15, 2020

How Philanthropy Can (and Can’t) Help Prevent Evictions during the Pandemic

In late August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a national emergency order halting evictions for renters facing economic hardship through the end of the year. The order temporarily helps 43 million renters who have lost jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic stay in their homes. However, states aren’t consistently enforcing it, and even in places with consistent enforcement and stronger protections, rent is still due.

The CDC order also does not include any resources for rental assistance, and the prospects for additional federal relief remain dim. Without further federal action, the country is likely to face an unprecedented surge in evictions when the CDC order and state and local moratoria expire.

Yet the CDC order (PDF) does include a suggestion from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that philanthropy should provide funds to fill gaps in rental assistance to ensure “critical needs are sufficiently addressed.”

Though philanthropy can’t replace the public sector in providing sorely needed rent relief, evidence suggests it can play a critical role in preventing evictions and stabilizing housing during the pandemic and beyond.

Philanthropy alone can’t prevent an eviction surge

The pandemic has laid waste to a rental housing infrastructure already in crisis, fueling housing instability and insecurity for millions of Americans. From February to August, at least one member of 5.3 million renter households lost their job. And according to data from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey, an estimated 11 million adult renters (nearly 1 in 6) were behind on rent in late September.

The pandemic has also disproportionately harmed Black and Latinx populations by widening racial inequities and creating unprecedented economic hardships. Black and Latinx people faced higher levels of eviction and housing instability before the crisis, and all signs point to greater risk of eviction during pandemic.

The CDC order came in the nick of time. But HUD’s suggestion that philanthropy should fill gaps in federal support is misguided. Philanthropic resources don’t come close to meeting the need. Foundations gave more than $75 billion to all causes in all of 2019, which was a record high. But even if foundations redirected all giving to rental assistance, it would still fall short of the $12–13 billion per month our colleagues estimate is needed to ensure housing stability for renters affected by COVID-19.

Yes, philanthropy should be a partner in addressing the housing crisis, but the gap it fills should complement, not replace, the public sector’s critical role in providing much-needed relief for renters.

But philanthropy can help fix a broken (and unjust) system

Philanthropy has addressed housing crises since the Civil War era, with the creation of settlement houses and sponsoring model tenements. From the beginning, philanthropy sought not only to provide housing but also to reform public policies (PDF) to improve housing conditions. More recently, foundations have helped expand and sustain the capacity of community-based housing development organizations to rehabilitate, construct, and manage affordable housing. These investments reflect changes in ideology and worldview regarding the role of private wealth in relation to government.

However, philanthropic resources are not endless. To support renters most effectively and complement public funding during this global crisis, philanthropy should consider targeting its resources the following ways.

  1. Address the root causes of structural racism. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx households and has exacerbated racial inequities. It has also widened state and local budget shortfalls, which may make it harder to design and implement recovery strategies that focus on addressing these racial inequities. Governments at all levels will have critical choices to make: they can exacerbate ongoing inequities, which will further damage the economy, or they can adopt more equitable policies that help their economies grow inclusively. Philanthropic investments can help build public will to fix injustices in housing and center public response efforts on racial equity and inclusion.
  2. Build the capacity of community-based organizations, housing counselors, and advocates who know their communities best and can work together to reach the most vulnerable renters, defend their rights, and connect them with resources. Public sector investments often invest in programs and limit dollars for capacity building, especially for community-based racial justice organizations. But as grassroots organizations scale to meet growing needs, philanthropic investments help fill the gaps.
  3. Improve the collection, analysis, and use of disaggregated data to guide investments in eviction prevention, housing stabilization, and recovery to produce more equitable outcomes. Philanthropic investments in research that produces disaggregated data can help state and local jurisdictions understand and articulate the pandemic’s disparate impacts on Black and Latinx households and quantify the costs of inaction. A better understanding of these disparate impacts is the first step toward reducing disparities.
  4. Invest in advocacy and organizing to enhance the power of grassroots networks and movement leaders who have themselves experienced housing injustice, with a focus on flexible support and advocacy to address intersecting issues, such as food insecurity and access to civil legal assistance. Foundations can be a powerful voice through more direct engagement in the public debate.
  5. Facilitate network building, information sharing, and narrative change to build a field of advocates, organizers, practitioners, and researchers who, together, can reshape affordable rental housing policies. Solving the root causes of America’s housing crisis requires a shift in public consciousness and significant changes in government policy. Philanthropy can play an important role in promoting new narratives and information through new partners, messengers, and platforms for discussion, debate, and dissemination.
  6. Support innovation and mitigate risks through investments and loans in enterprises. For housing organizations and community development financial institutions to sustain operations and develop new strategies and capacities to respond during this crisis, they will need more than grantmaking budgets. Foundations can use their endowments to deploy much-needed capital to sustain and build out these efforts. This includes making bridge loans to high-performing organizations to meet the increased demand for assistance or investing in property acquisition and affordable housing development funds.

Philanthropy has played a critical role in addressing housing crises throughout our country’s history. But it has been a partner with the public sector, not a replacement for it. Today, philanthropy can play a vital role in ensuring all policymakers understand these communities’ acute needs, spurring public action, and delivering assistance where it’s needed most to build the foundation for a more equitable recovery.

A "cancel rent no evictons" banner hangs from an apartment building in the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Tenants and housing activists dropped banners marched in the streets to demand that the city cancel rent. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.