A panel of mayors, CEOs, and homelessness experts convened at the Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill Medical Center for a May 18 press conference.
Reginald Black

The Mayors and CEOs for U.S. Housing Investment held a press conference May 18 in the nation’s capital to discuss progress made since the campaign was announced in January.

In the face of federal divestment and growing wealth inequality, American cities are on the front lines of the nation’s largest challenges, according to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who kicked off the event. The most daunting challenge, by far, is housing affordability. Wheeler’s city needs 23,000 more units of affordable housing than it has to meet needs of constituents.  

He said the dearth of housing options would negatively affect his community’s health. 

Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson agreed, calling stable housing an essential part of healthcare and well-being for the mind, body and spirit. At the press conference, Kaiser Permanente announced it would join the Mayors & CEOs coalition and invest $200 million to be focused on preventing low-income people from falling into homelessness and providing supportive services. 

Photo of Bernard Tyson, wearing a suit, standing at a podium with the label "Mayors and CEOs for U.S. Housing Investment

Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson. Photo by Reginald Black

“We believe, in the 21st century, that no one should have to go to bed on the streets of our country, Tyson said. “We’re committed to work with these great mayors, with city leaders, with other businesses in our communities, the government and everyone to solve a solvable problem.”  

Tyson also hoped the substantial investment would set an example for other businesses to get involved. 

Stable housing strengthens families and improves educational outcomes, Wheeler noted. It allows parents to focus on work and kids to focus on school. It reduces crime and drug abuse. “Housing connects families to the community,” he said, “and housing provides an opportunity for families to do the most important thing that they can do, which is spend time together.” 

But as the cost of housing continues to rise, so does the number of people living on the streets. National data analyzed in 2017 showed that the number of people experiencing homelessness had risen for the first time in seven years. 

“We have taken matters into our own hands despite federal restrictions in support,” Wheeler said of the Mayors and CEOs campaign. He said housing support through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has declined by 80 percent since 1980. 

Portland residents have voted to pass a significant housing bond and increased the percentage of urban-renewal dollars going toward affordable housing. New zoning laws were adopted to increase both height and density in Portland’s central city. Additionally, all homelessness services were consolidated into a joint office that has moved 5,000 people off the street and prevented 6,000 others from becoming homeless. “We could not have achieved any of these successes without the intentional and direct participation of the private sector,” Wheeler said. “I cannot underscore enough that aspect of why we are here today.” 

Wheeler lauded Kaiser, as well as Columbia Sportswear, based in Portland. The latter’s CEO personally contributed $1.5 million to address local homelessness and encouraged fellow business leaders there to do the same. 

“Government alone cannot solve this withering crisis,” Wheeler said. 

Oakland, California, has experienced similar economic growth; as housing prices rise, 40 percent more people are experiencing homelessness. The average medium-sized house sells for just under $1 million.  

“In public surveys, my residents identify homelessness as the number-one issue in our city by 90 percent,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. “A close second is housing affordability.” 

Schaaf described motorists headed downtown being greeted by a tent city that spawls blocks in every direction. More than 100 unsheltered residents live along the off-ramps. The city and surrounding county both passed housing bonds in the previous election. Oakland has also been identifying vacant lots near existing homeless encampments and establishing small villages of “Tuff Shed”-brand structures, each with a lock, electricity, insulation and double-paned windows. The sheds provide more safety and security than a tent and, unlike shelters, allow people to bring in pets, possessions and partners.The city also provides sanitation and other services on site. 

“The experiment is going well,” Schaaf said. “We’re seeing people move from the Tuff Sheds to permanent housing into employment.” 

She ended her remarks by announcing that U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) had agreed to introduce bipartisan legislation to address some of the mayors and CEOs’ priorities. “Housing does not care whether you are a Democrat or a Republican,” Schaaf said. “It puts a roof over your head.” 

[Read more: While building her own cabin, Artist/Vendor Jacqulyn Portee wrote about the Oakland Tuff Shed village and similar creative solutions across the country]

The mayors of Baltimore and Alexandria, Virginia, were also present. 

Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg outlined several creative solutions being explored in her city. In one case, a shelter and an affordable housing developer, both nonprofits, have joined forces to redevelop the city’s centrally located shelter in Old Town. The new facility will remain a shelter on the ground floor and have 140 units of affordable housing on top. Ten of those units are planned to be deeply affordable permanent supportive housing units to help people who are ready to transition from the shelter into affordable housing. “These are creative solutions, and they are possible with public, private and nonprofit partnerships,” Silberberg said.  

The new shelter is funded by tax credits, city funds and private financing, including $1.6 million in state and national trust-fund dollars. During construction, the shelter will continue to operate in an interim space, an old Macy’s store, donated by the Howard Hughes development company. 

The cooperation between mayors and CEOs emphasizes that businesses have “skin in the game” to keep local economies competitive and ensure that workers can afford to live near their workplaces, according to Silberberg. She and the city council also voted to increase Alexandria’s meal tax by 1 percent, generating $4.75 million annually for Alexandria’s housing trust fund. “Not everyone was a supporter, and the passage of this ordinance took political will,” Silberberg said. “Housing affordability is one of the main ways our city lives its values of being a welcoming, diverse and inclusive place for all.” 

When asked whether the money would be used for pubic housing, Kaiser Permanente and other members of the private sector expressed interest in looking beyond simply investing in the development of local affordable housing to address the systemic nature of homelessness. 

“We want the federal government to bring services from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to couple that with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development vouchers so people in public housing can get the types of wrap-around services we know are effective,” Schaaf, the Oakland mayor, said. “We are trying to change the way the federal government supports housing in all our communities.” 

Correction (6.01.2018)

This article has been updated to reflect that Kaiser Permanente made two separate announcements: that it was joining the Mayor and CEOs campaign and that the company was investing $200 million dollars in preventing homelessness and serving homeless people. We initially reported that the $200 million investment was made as part of of the Mayors and CEOs campaign.