February 28, 2022

Private investments in housing are critical — and not enough

Public policy changes and private investments together are needed to end the homelessness crisis.

Contributed by John Vu, Vice President, Community Health

When I was a young child, my family and I were forced to flee our war-torn country and become refugees. Living and wandering without much hope of stable housing was unnerving and exacted an emotional toll on each of us. That experience was incredibly difficult and helped me understand the comfort and well-being that a stable home can create by enabling a sense of place and belonging, something we all should have.

Right now, millions of people living in the United States confront housing challenges similar to those my family faced. In 2021, the United States was short more than 5 million affordable homes. This incredible shortage has driven up home prices, burdened families, and pushed millions of adults and children into unstable, temporary housing situations.

In response to this profound housing crisis, nonprofits and private companies have committed more than a billion dollars to expand housing and reduce homelessness. Each commitment is powerful, necessary, and not enough to ensure every person has safe, stable housing.

The scale of this problem is huge, but it can be overcome if private actors and government leaders come together, make targeted investments, and make structural changes to our housing system.

Private investments are improving lives

Without stable housing, our homeless neighbors face significant challenges. The most devastating is the effect on their health and longevity.

Numerous studies have shown the link between housing and health. People experiencing chronic homelessness have mortality rates 3 to 4 times higher than the general population.

People who have unaffordable, unstable housing environments are also more likely to forego necessary medical care, skip medication, or be negatively impacted by their environment in ways that worsen their health.

As a mission-driven nonprofit health care provider, Kaiser Permanente has committed to improving health by working to improve housing security and end homelessness. Following are some examples of our efforts over the last several years.

  • We established a $200 million housing investment fund that has created or preserved more than 7,000 homes within its first 3 years.
  • We pledged resources for operational and supportive services through Project Homekey. To date, Project Homekey has created more than 6,000 units of interim or permanent supportive housing, housing over 8,200 individuals experiencing homelessness.
  • We partnered with Community Solutions on work in communities across the country to end chronic and veteran homelessness. This support helped 3 communities functionally end homelessness, and we are seeing population-level reductions in 7 other communities
  • We addressed displacement to keep people housed. In Maryland, Kaiser Permanente convened health sector stakeholders and committed $5 million to catalyze affordable housing projects and prevent displacement of existing residents as a new light rail corridor is developed.
  • We expanded access to legal services across our markets to help renters stay housed, in partnership with the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership.

Other health care organizations and private sector leaders are committing resources to address housing and homelessness as well, which is encouraging since every contribution makes a difference.

But more is needed. In a state like California, where over 160,000 people are homeless and tens of thousands more are housing insecure, the scale of the problem requires greater action. Too many communities across the country are struggling to ensure safe, stable housing for everyone.

Public policy must drive large-scale change

There are many valid public policy approaches that could improve housing security in ways that support the health of individuals and our broader communities. Solutions should address the scale of the problem, incorporate racial equity and health equity considerations, and address the structural impediments to change.

At Kaiser Permanente we believe federal, state, and local governments have a significant role to play in ending the crisis and we pursue policy solutions that can help achieve that goal.

In partnership with other leaders and health care organizations, we’ve advocated for the expansion of federal low-income housing tax credits. These tax credits help families access affordable housing and help keep them in their homes. Expanding these tax credits and ensuring they are permanent would go a long way in addressing the affordable-housing supply challenge.

Federal and state officials also must incentivize affordable housing construction. At the state level, Kaiser Permanente has advocated for housing bonds for affordable housing development, including a $4 billion bond approved by California voters in 2018 to create new affordable housing and provide low-interest loans to veterans. Through CityHealth, an initiative of the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, we are encouraging city governments across the country to consider affordable housing trust funds to provide additional financing.

Policymakers also can work to overcome nonfinancial impediments to housing security. No amount of federal tax credits or housing bonds can overcome historic zoning policies that are haunted by the ghosts of racial and economic segregation. That’s why we have encouraged local governments to pass inclusionary zoning policies that promote affordable housing development and reduce segregation.

In addition to expanding access, we also need to help people stay housed. In the coming years, we will be encouraging city governments to provide legal support to renters.

These are only a few of the changes that must be made to address the homelessness crisis. I encourage you to explore these ideas and others in the resources below. What is clear is that public policy changes offer real, scalable solutions to this crisis — and these changes must be made for the sake of our neighbors and communities.

Learn more

Housing and homelessness experts discussed opportunities for health systems and policymakers to create change at the Institute for Health Policy’s February 2021 forum “A Journey Home: Transforming Care, Providing Support, Expanding Access.”

The Way Home is a short-form documentary about the growing homelessness crisis in California and highlights personal stories and promising solutions.