It’s Time to Broaden the Affordable Housing Movement

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By Mike Koprowski, Campaign Director for Opportunity Starts at Home 

A safe, decent, affordable home is a foundation of opportunity, but it’s out of reach for far too many.  The evidence is quite clear that we are witnessing a severe housing affordability crisis in America, and its consequences are spilling over into many other sectors such as education, health care, civil rights, homelessness, and economic mobility.  As acclaimed sociologist, Matthew Desmond, explains: “It is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need.  Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country.  The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”    

I’ve recently taken on the role of National Campaign Director of Opportunity Starts at Home, a new multi-sector housing campaign to meet the housing needs of the nation’s low-income people.  The National Low Income Housing Coalition launched this campaign together with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Children’s HealthWatch, Make Room, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and with a steering committee of partners including the Children’s Defense Fund, Community Catalyst, Food Research and Action Center, NAACP, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Association of Community Health Centers, National Education Association, and UnidosUS. 

The driving idea behind this campaign is that a diverse range of stakeholders from various sectors will be necessary to make affordable housing a national priority and to effectuate federal policies that protect and expand affordable housing.  The federal government already plays a significant role in addressing the housing needs of low-income families, but it is not nearly strong enough considering the magnitude of the problem.  Today, only 1 out of 4 eligible households receive the help they need.  Contrary to the myths and false stereotypes, only 6% of households receiving housing aid are “work able” but not employed.  The problem is that wages are much too low to afford a decent rental home without financial help.  In fact, there are only 12 counties in America where a full-time worker on minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom rental.

The time to act is now: the housing affordability problem has reached disastrous levels; federal housing assistance is chronically under-funded and faces unprecedented threats in the current political climate; housing advocates are increasingly realizing that they can’t do this work alone; many other sectors are increasingly realizing that housing is inextricably linked to their own priorities and goals; and the research continues to mount that housing is fundamental to nearly every social and economic outcome that matters to our country.

Perhaps surprisingly, I personally arrived at these conclusions through my experiences in the education sector – specifically, as the Chief of Transformation and Innovation for the Dallas Independent School District.  There, I became convinced that many of the challenges we face in the education field – low college readiness, yawning achievement gaps, inequitable funding – actually have their roots in housing-related issues.  Like most major cities, Dallas is experiencing a growing affordable housing problem and has long experienced crushing levels of residential segregation, which we know lies at the core of educational inequity.

Through my time on the ground in Dallas, I became convinced that, as scholar Richard Rothstein said, “School reform cannot succeed without housing reform.”  I remain an enthusiastic supporter of many important education efforts, such as raising academic standards, increasing funding for high-poverty schools, investing in professional development and better teacher pay, and focusing on early childhood development.  But still more is needed.  As former Massachusetts Secretary of Education, Paul Reville, said: “Even when optimized with high expectations, strong curriculum, and expert instruction, today’s schools have not proven powerful enough by themselves to compensate for the disadvantages associated with poverty.”

Research consistently shows that achievement differences between students are more attributable to out-of-school factors than in-school factors.  After all, children spend the vast majority of their time in and around their homes.  We know that poor children in affordable housing do better on tests than poor children in unaffordable housing – if rent doesn’t eat up parents’ hard-earned paychecks, they can more easily invest in their child’s development.  We know that poor children who constantly change schools due to housing instability struggle academically and suffer later as adults.  And we know that affordable housing options located in “high-opportunity areas” can lead to mixed-income neighborhoods, which, in turn, can lead to mixed-income schools that consistently produce strong academic and social outcomes for affluent and low-income students alike.

If you look at my résumé, you might see someone who “switched” from the education field to the housing field.  But I reject this notion.  For me, the fight for affordable housing is also very much a fight to advance student success.  It’s time to re-think the artificial organizational silos we’ve created.  The complexities of modern-day challenges require us to be more fluid, to look beyond our respective lanes, to acknowledge our interdependencies, and to implement solutions together.  These issues are too complicated and difficult for one sector to solve alone.  Education advocates ARE housing advocates – and the same could be said for health care advocates, civil rights advocates, veterans advocates, anti-poverty advocates, and many more.

That’s a big reason why I joined this multi-sector housing campaign.  I am enormously grateful for the chance to lead the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign, and I look forward to working with our stakeholders to ensure that low-income people have access to safe, decent, affordable housing in neighborhoods where everyone has equitable opportunities to thrive.

Learn more about the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign at: www.opportunityhome.org

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