The blog of the Urban Institute
February 27, 2019

A Q&A with housing affordability leader Ellen Sahli, recipient of the Janice Nittoli Fellowship

February 27, 2019

The Minneapolis-based Family Housing Fund (FHFund) supports access to decent and affordable housing to everyone in the Twin Cities area. As the region’s economy continues to grow, housing costs rise, and more people seek places to call home, the FHFund plays an increasingly critical role in ensuring an effective and inclusive housing system.

Ellen Sahli, president of the FHFund, was recently selected as the recipient of the Urban Institute’s 2019 Janice Nittoli Practitioner Fellowship. The fellowship pairs leading practitioners with Urban researchers to advance evidence-based solutions that alleviate inequalities. The fellowship honors the late Janice Nittoli, former associate vice president and managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, which funds the fellowship.

In the following conversation, Sahli discusses her plans to leverage the fellowship and Urban’s expertise on housing affordability to advance her organization’s vital mission.

What are your primary goals as the Nittoli fellow?

Minneapolis and the Twin Cities region often get highlighted as a competitive or crunched housing market. Like many other places, we don’t have enough housing to meet the demand. So our work to help create and ensure the opportunity of housing—to help people find a place to call home—is very urgent.

Lately, we’ve been focused on the area of eviction prevention. We know that once an eviction filing occurs, a family’s credit is damaged, their relationship with landlord is impaired, and the landlord incurs costs. To prevent this process from happening, we’re working closely with partners who play a role in housing stability, including landlords, the court system, emergency assistance, legal aid lawyers, and mediators.

As someone who’s appreciated Urban’s work on housing for many years, I’m excited to work with Urban’s researchers to find upstream solutions to this issue. In other words, solutions that keep people out of eviction court completely. How can we work with various community partners to identify points of tension and intervene early enough to preserve housing relationships? What are the most effective strategies?

What other knowledge gaps do you seek to address?

Data on the housing system exist in many places across our community. The court has eviction filings. Housing agencies have records of applications for emergency assistance. And community partners have records on applications for a state-funded program to help renters needing financial assistance with missed rent payments to avoid homelessness.

Scholars like Matt Desmond have done important work to disaggregate data on eviction writs filed with the court, but that is only a piece of the puzzle.

I’m excited to partner with Urban to learn more about the most effective interventions that keep people stably housed. I’d also like to learn more about families who endure financial stress but stay out of eviction court and whether they remained in their housing.

Another important area to explore, and where Urban has expertise, is the value of community relationships and the assistive framework that encourages people to ask for help early enough to avoid eviction. This is less of a data question and more about the fabric of a community and where people in distress first turn for help. If people aren’t connected to our resources early enough to make a difference, we will be less effective in keeping them stably housed.

Finally, I’m also interested in the often-overlooked area of housing quality. I admire the work of Urban’s Maya Brennan on this topic. We know that poor housing quality has a major impact on how a family navigates their daily life, and ensuring that housing meets basic standards is a constant goal for our community and many others.

What about the fellowship’s structure drew you to it?

I like that the fellowship happens in real time, meaning that I’m still working on a range of projects that I would do regardless of the fellowship and don’t have to put down. This way, I can take a step back from my work and immerse myself in a different team and different ways of thinking about the same challenges but without having to completely remove myself from my day-to-day work.

The fellowship also gives me stronger tools to address challenges and questions raised by my work. It really is a great way to structure innovative learning and do a deep dive into tough problems like our nation’s affordable housing crisis.

Photo by smartboy10 via GettyImages

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