Philanthropy, Higher Education & Affordable Housing: Forming Unique Partnerships

When the Jessie Ball duPont Fund tackles the challenges of affordable housing, it frequently chooses to partne

Anne Ray (University of Florida), Robin Bachin (University of Miami) and Rusty Smith (Auburn University) talk with attendees at the Council on Foundations.

r with large research universities, public and private. 

Through the years, these partnerships have paid big dividends for the Fund and the communities it serves. 

At the recent Council on Foundations conference in Dallas, the Fund’s president, Sherry Magill, joined with representatives of three grantee universities to explain the varied ways these partnerships work. 

In general, the Fund encourages large research universities to share their expertise and resources with their local communities. 

“We want to help these big institutions enter the world,” Magill said, “and discover how they can take academic research to help people at the local level.”

The grants that support these efforts are not necessarily large — many are less than $50,000. “No foundation has too little money to engage the local university,” Magill said

For example, the Fund invested about $25,000 to engage the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies in a comprehensive assessment of housing in the Fund’s home community of Jacksonville, Florida. 

“Housing decisions and policies have been devolved down to the state and local level,” said Anne Ray, who manages Shimberg’s Housing Data Clearinghouse, “so there’s a natural partnership between colleges and universities and local communities.”

Communities are beginning to see the connections between safe, affordable housing and child well-being, educational success, health, energy conservation and many other issues, Ray said. This expands the ways in which academic research can be useful to local policy makers and activists. 

In South Florida, the Fund helped the University of Miami create the Miami Affordability Project, which provides a detailed map of the affordable housing landscape in Miami-Dade County, giving those working in policy and advocacy a rich tool to enhance their efforts. 

“Five years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation [locally] about affordable housing,” said Robin Bachin , the university’s assistant provost for civic and community engagement, “but now there is.”

In the desperately poor counties of Alabama’s Black Belt, a different type of partnership has taken root. Since the 1990s, the Fund has helped the Auburn University School of Architecture provide innovative affordable housing to very low income families. 

In the early years, Auburn students used local, found materials to construct safe, sturdy but often unusual housing structures. Today, the school is developing the $20,000 house — a newly constructed, energy efficient, well-designed one-bedroom home that can be built on existing homesteads with easily available materials. 

“We want to show people not just what to do to build a house, but how to do it and why it should be done that way,” said Rusty Smith, associate professor of architecture at Auburn. 

These types of partnerships can be extremely beneficial to communities, said Calvin Parker, regional vice president of LISC, which works across the country to help revitalize struggling neighborhoods. 

“Community development organizations are swimming upstream,” he said, fighting abandonment and disinvestment as well as gentrification and displacement. “It’s a really difficult challenge.”

Academic institutions can help by documenting the need, identifying the most beneficial interventions and validating the effectiveness of those interventions. 

UF’s Ray concurred, noting that communities that compete best for the available housing resources tend to be those with a philanthropic partner that is pushing the issue. 

“These partnerships are valuable, affordable and beneficial,” Magill said. “They help students, the university and the community.”