With a Power-Building Approach to Housing in California, a Pooled Fund Evolves and Expands

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Despite new legislation and continued promises of action, a full 28% of all people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. live in California. For years, the proposed solution has been to build more housing, but one pooled fund is taking a different approach. 

The Fund for an Inclusive California, which officially launched in 2018, is a trust-based collaborative fund that works to address the state's housing crisis by supporting power-building and community-led organizing efforts in the state. Originally meant to sunset in 2020, the fund has announced a new round of grants totaling $1.7 million as part of its five-year, $25 million second phase. 

The fund, which is an initiative of the Common Counsel Foundation's Housing Justice Initiative and remains housed there, has retained many of its original funders, including The California Endowment, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the James Irvine Foundation, the Weingart Foundation and the San Francisco Foundation. The fund raised $13 million in its first phase. 

Organizations that receive support are referred to as community advisors, as opposed to grantees, because they guide the fund on how best to support their work. Recipients for this round include: North Bay Organizing Network, Faith in the Valley, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Pueblo Unido Community Development Center, Starting Over, Inc., InnerCity Struggle, Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, Housing Now!, and Tenants Together. During this phase, the fund will focus on the Central Valley and Inland Region, two areas of California that typically receive significantly less funding than other parts of the state. 

According to the fund's director, Jazmin Segura, the fund grew out of the understanding that development alone was not going to undo the harm that the long history of segregation, racial discrimination and housing inequality has caused in California. Both funders and community leaders realized that in order to address the root causes of housing inequality, it's crucial to invest in power-building among organizations that work closely with those that are most affected by the issue, which are low-income communities and people of color. 

The fund was meant to wind down in 2020, but the pandemic highlighted just how critical the issue of housing was for the state. "During that time, our funders really recognized the importance of supporting organizing and power-building organizations that were not only organizing local communities but also highlighting the need of low-income communities of color across the state," Segura said. 

The fund was extended, and put together a community-driven planning process that identified priorities for the five-year second phase that is now underway. The fund built on its work, and through a community-led process, established a new governance structure that centers community organization leaders as decision-makers.

"We've been very intentional about setting up a process that develops strong relationships with them so that we can have honest and transparent conversations about the needs on the ground and the needs of our organizations," Segura said. 

Sharing power

Philanthropy has historically been funder driven, but in recent years, more donors have elected to take a more trust-based approach by building close relationships and sharing power with the communities they support. The Fund for an Inclusive California has been deliberate in its attempt to center communities and the organizations that serve them.

Following the first phase of the fund, nine community advisors from across the state came together to design the fund's new five-year phase. This included things like developing shared definitions of housing justice, what success looks like to them, and their long-term vision for the work. According to Segura, funders were consulted during key moments to provide insight into the funder landscape and how philanthropy thinks about housing justice. 

"It's really what it says: a fund for an inclusive California," said Vonya Quarales, governing body member and executive director of Starting Over, Inc. "One of the first things I noticed was that inclusivity wasn't just a word. The coalition is actually broad. There are people from a lot of different lenses who were part of the coalition, and I think that's what makes it both more grounded and more powerful."

That inclusive approach is reflected in the fund’s new governance structure. The governing body is made up of community advisors and funding partners who will together be responsible for guiding the fund in accordance with the strategies developed by community leaders. The governing body is made up of 13 people: five representatives of funders and eight community advisors. Members include Diana Amparo Jiménez, the Weingart Foundation; Cynthia Bourjac, Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles; Rae Huang, Housing Now! California; Craig Martinez, The California Endowment; Kate O’Hara, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy; Pastor Curtis Smith, Faith in the Valley; and Derek Steele, Social Justice Learning Institute. 

"There's a co-governing element to this that will continue to hold us accountable and continue to ensure that our resources and our strategies continue to be aligned with the priorities of the organizations," Segura said. 

Statewide support 

California is, to put it mildly, a very large state. Despite this, funding is usually concentrated on two major regions: Los Angeles and the Bay Area. One of the fund's goals for this next phase is to continue to support the power-building infrastructure of organizations across four priority regions, while also supporting statewide networks to develop and sustain connections between local, regional and statewide organizing. And while the priority regions include Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the fund is focusing especially on the other two areas — the Inland Region and the Central Valley. 

"There were listening sessions, strategy sessions, working sessions. We were informed by different parts of the state in a way that was refreshing and necessary," said Quareles, who heads up Starting Over, Inc. "So L.A. and the Bay Area usually drive decisions. They drive policy. And they drive a lot of the coalition work. So the Fund for an Inclusive California made intentional steps to ensure that people from the Central Valley were part of the discussions." 

Starting Over, Inc., is an example of how the fund is ensuring that organizations from across the state both receive support and help guide the fund's work. The organization provides transitional housing and reentry services for formerly incarcerated individuals in Riverside County, which is part of the Inland Empire region. It also engages in advocacy and civic engagement. 

Like Starting Over, many of the organizations the fund supports focus on intersectional work, including immigrant rights and environmental justice, among others. Partner organizations are working across a wide range of housing-related issues, including working to pass tenant protections and preserving and producing affordable housing for low- and extremely low-income residents. 

"I think the impact that we're trying to have is bigger than housing, and we really see that shifting political power from the few to the many is a critical element of what this fund is trying to do to ensure that communities that have been disproportionately impacted by housing inequality and housing insecurity, those who have been most in danger of displacement, land grabs [and the] climate crisis, that they have a powerful voice and that they get to have the opportunity to influence and inform the decisions and solutions," Segura said.

Organizing funders

The fund is also prioritizing organizing other funders and educating them on housing justice. The fund allows for funders to break out of their silos and find ways to fund the different strategies needed to address an issue as big as housing inequality. Collaboration, Segura said, is necessary to make a significant impact. 

"When we think about working alongside… funders, how do we also create spaces to bring in new players and new funders to the conversation so that we can continue to learn together about how to address housing insecurity and the housing crisis in California?" Segura said. 

For the James Irvine Foundation — one of the fund's original backers — the fund began as a way to explore as a group how better to support organizations working on issues like housing justice and to help the foundation figure out what its own strategies in this space might be. 

"I personally have learned a lot from it," said Rajib Guha, director of program development. "I appreciate the way Common Counsel Foundation has thoughtfully convened funders while also being very sensitive to the inherent power dynamics that exist between funders and groups and communities."