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Americans are Running Out of Affordable Places to Live

By September 23, 2021

Consider the various ways you might describe yourself: parent, sibling, college grad, writer, activist, baker. Few of us define ourselves by the structures we live in. So why do we call people experiencing housing instability “homeless”? Their housing status is no more representative of who they are than it is for someone who rents an apartment or owns a house. And there are more than 500,000 people in America experiencing housing instability on any given night.

Many of them live in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, which ranks among the most expensive cities in the United States, with average downtown home prices exceeding $1 million. It also has one of the highest rates of people experiencing homelessness in the country. And while the issue of stable housing isn’t unique to the Bay Area, as a region that’s home to global companies like Levi’s, Facebook, Uber, Apple, and yes, Salesforce, it offers a stark example of just how pervasive the problem is.

For that reason, it serves as the backdrop of episode four of the Force Multiplier podcast, featuring conversations with experts in the field: Darice Ingram, program assistant for student support services at California State University, East Bay; Matt Rosen, chief program officer at Habitat for Humanity San Francisco; and Mike King, President and CEO of Volunteers of America.

It’s past time to start looking at, and addressing, housing as a right rather than a commodity. Here’s how the experts that host Baratunde Thurston spoke to on this week’s episode are leading the conversation.

Tents lining the street in a downtown area
It’s past time to start looking at, and addressing, housing as a right rather than a commodity.

Habitat for Humanity Creates Secure and Stable Futures in San Francisco

Working in all 50 states and 70 countries worldwide, Habitat for Humanity has helped more than 4 million people build or reconstruct homes since 1976. In San Francisco, where the cost of living is sky-high, Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco provides affordable homeownership opportunities for families experiencing housing instability and offers a springboard to a more secure and stable future.

“We’re creating opportunities for people to own their own homes, which is something we’re really proud of,” Rosen says. “We’re part of this continuum of housing, but also being able to create housing opportunities that allow folks to build equity, where people not only have a safe and secure place to live, but also where every dollar that they put into their mortgage is a dollar that they’re going to get back, which creates a sense of legacy and stability. We all know there’s an enormous racial wealth gap in this country and that wealth is so critical to allowing people to stay in or step into the middle class.”

In 2014, Salesforce and Habitat joined forces to transform how the organization operates. Harnessing the power of the Nonprofit Cloud has enabled Habitat to be more efficient, have greater impact, and carry out its mission more successfully.

“Housing is part of the way that we invest in our young people, we invest in our health, we invest in our future, and it’s really a part of how we sustain our communities,” Rosen said. “And the more that we think about it like that and reframe it, I think the more likely we’ll have the kinds of affordable housing options that we need in our communities.”

Volunteers cutting wood for a new home
Working in all 50 states and 70 countries worldwide, Habitat for Humanity has helped more than 4 million people build or reconstruct homes since 1976.

California State University, East Bay Supports Students Through the Pandemic

In her role as program assistant for student support services, Darice Ingram uniquely understands the challenges students face. Often, those challenges include a lack of housing, food, or reliable transportation.

“Cal State East Bay has a lot of first-generation students who understand why it’s important to take education seriously and to continue their education in order to either come out of poverty or to advance their family, and to build a legacy,” Ingram explained. “They may not have enough financial aid or the finances to make all of the dots connect. Because of that, we have a commitment to our students to help them meet their basic needs while they’re getting to the graduation finish line.”

When COVID-19 hit the CSUEB campus, the university had to think quickly about how to support its most vulnerable students. “Our emergency assistance requests went up 1,600%,” Ingram said. Fortunately, students are well-prepared for tough conversations about their needs.

“At orientation, we talk about basic needs and that there may be a gap. We normalize having the conversations, we normalize connecting with mental health, and we normalize bringing the whole student to Cal State East Bay,” Ingram said. “And if there is a gap, let’s work together to help fill that need and connect you to programs and resources.”

After receiving CARES dollars, CSUEB was able to expand its emergency assistance program, allowing students to socially distance while living in emergency housing. The key to success, said Ingram, was being part of Impact Labs, a collaborative program that co-designs innovative technology solutions addressing tough social issues.

“Through these past few months, we have really seen the value of collaboration and resource-sharing,” said Ingram. “Through working with the other Impact Labs Community Fellows, I learned about housing and homelessness resources that I was unaware of before. Collaboration really is key to navigating uncharted waters.”

Volunteers of America Helps Formerly Incarcerated Individuals Find Housing

The margin of error for those living paycheck to paycheck is incredibly narrow. One flat tire, trip to the emergency room, or missed rent check and you can find yourself without a roof overhead. The pandemic has served as a reminder that a quick change in circumstance can happen to anyone. Thankfully, help is out there in the form of organizations like Volunteers of America (VOA).

“We want to make sure that everyone who is housed with us understands that we always want them to retain their dignity, and to be treated in a respectful manner by the folks that work with them,” said Mike King, VOA’s President and CEO.

Founded in 1896 with the goal of decreasing the income gap in America, the organization’s focus hasn’t changed much in 125 years. VOA was the first-ever organization focused on helping formerly incarcerated people successfully reenter society, find employment, and secure housing. Today, they house more than 25,000 people every year and touch the lives of 1.5 million people annually in 400 communities across the country.

What does it take to reach that many people? Strong partnerships, King said. “We can’t even begin to do any of this alone.” Key VOA partnerships include voucher programs with the Veterans Administration that provide housing and services to servicemen and women, relationships with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide reentry services for formerly incarcerated people, and volunteer opportunities via the Home Depot Foundation.

“It is truly a village for all of us, and we must embrace it,” he said. “Technology is an opportunity. The force multiplier is to truly embrace leveraging the collective force and bargaining power of our organization through a common use of expanded technology where we could communicate, design, embrace and engage all across the nation the kinds of resources that it must take to be the game changer.”

Listen to episode #4 of the Force Multiplier podcast. Did you miss our recap of episodes #1, #2, and #3? Read the recap of episode #1 about nutrition insecurity, episode #2 about health equity, and episode #3 about workforce development.