Building the foundation for affordable housing with employment opportunity

April 3, 2018 | By

A growing body of research illustrates the relationship between economic opportunity and access to affordable housing. And Lucretia Murphy sees it firsthand in her role as senior director of Jobs for the Future, where she helps adults advance to fulfilling careers, while enabling employers to build and sustain a productive workforce.

The problem, as she sees it, is that the connection between  worker productivity and stable housing is not always recognized. “Employees can’t be effective if they are struggling to manage daily household living expenses, such as rent or mortgage and utilities, or if they are concerned about losing their housing,” she says. “When we advocate for workers, we must elevate this issue as one of prime importance in order to retain employees and yield peak productivity.”

Defining and Solving the Affordable Housing Problem

Access to affordable housing in America continues to be a challenge for people at virtually all income levels. That’s why Murphy agreed to be one of the Expert Advisory Panel members helping Fannie Mae with its Sustainable Communities Innovation Challenge. The Challenge, as it’s known, is a two-year, $10 million commitment designed to generate innovative ideas addressing the affordable housing crisis in America.  It further supports Fannie Mae’s broad mission to create housing opportunities that are safe, sustainable, and affordable.

Integrating workforce development with housing is a core but overlooked issue. Many times Murphy finds that the assumption is that people who are struggling with housing insecurity aren’t trying to work, but that’s not often the case. Instead a lot of working people lack access to affordable, stable housing where employment opportunities are available.

People are being displaced from communities as the cost of housing escalates, and then employers lack access to workers who have the skills they need. For example, many school systems are having trouble recruiting teachers because teachers can’t afford to live near schools located in communities that cater to tourism, or in largely high-income areas like California’s Bay Area.

“It’s a problem across the spectrum as communities squeeze out low-income to middle-income residents, and people are cast further from employment,” Murphy points out.  And then rural communities suffer from the opposite problem. While residents can find affordable housing, the challenge of housing stock is replaced with the potential lack of local living wage jobs.

The Greatest Need is Partnering for Solutions

Murphy finds that workforce development and education are usually seen as a single issue that doesn’t take into account the challenge of affordable housing. “Currently there are few joint efforts in place by stakeholders who have shared authority in workforce and housing and have power to implement solutions,” she says noting that developers and others need to work side-by-side with city and counties on zoning policies.

But even then, she points out, they are disconnected from worker training. Fannie Mae, through The Challenge, is helping bridge this gap to connect two seemingly non-related sectors, in the hope of driving shared solutions.

Using the Challenge to Yield “Fresh Thinking”

Murphy joined the panel because she found it appealing that Fannie Mae was seeking such a wide variety of applicants for The Challenge. “I was drawn to the concept of identifying commonalities and generating broader lessons that can be used between communities, despite a potentially different labor landscape or population,” she says.

She also appreciates that the initiative is helping make the plight visible. “There can be some shame attached to lacking the ability to afford a place to live, especially if you have a family,” she says. “We need to shine the spotlight on it as a problem that we as a society need to address.”

Forming the Expert Advisory Panel to bring together people who are thinking about this issue from such diverse perspectives will yield productive conversations likely to spawn a variety of solutions.

To Murphy, short-term success will come from identifying the different challenges for different communities—from urban to rural—and establishing benchmarks to address it.

And ultimately, she says, “Success means that we have found an intersection between the skills of workers, the opportunities for workers, and available quality affordable housing.”

To learn more about The Sustainable Communities Innovation Challenge, visit our website.

Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer who writes for The Home Story as well as for The Oregonian, Learnvest.com, Forbes.com, and other online and print publications.

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