Amid a round of recent news about the increasing problem of homelessness in America, Jon Campbell appeared before a standing room-only audience of affordable housing advocates to call for renewed efforts to address the crisis.
“I think the headline for all of this should be, ‘America can’t afford unaffordable housing,’” he said, as the crowd applauded. “I really believe that’s the headline. And if we can all take that mantra forward from this place, we’re really going to make progress.”
Campbell, Wells Fargo’s head of philanthropy, led the panel on affordable housing June 4 at the 2019 Social Innovation Summit in Los Angeles. The two-day conference brought together nonprofit leaders, corporate executives, government officials, philanthropists, activists, and other leaders to explore new ways of effecting social change.
It was the first panel on housing affordability in the summit’s history, indicating the growing concern about the crisis, Campbell said.
He noted that just before the event began, media reports focused on a new study showing a 2018 double-digit surge in homelessness in Los Angeles County alone. Nationwide, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported in March a 7-million-unit shortage in affordable rental housing for people at or near poverty.
“The purpose of this session is to elevate a topic that is deeply affecting millions of families,” Campbell said. “It is clearly a rising crisis in this country — something that has really increased our concern at Wells Fargo. And we would like to do something about it.”
On June 5, Wells Fargo announced a commitment to donate $1 billion to affordable housing efforts through 2025 — positioning the company to be “the top corporate cash giver in the country,” according to Reuters. The company is also focusing its philanthropic efforts in the coming years on three major areas — affordable housing, financial literacy, and small business support.
Joining Campbell on the panel were Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International; Jacqueline Waggoner, vice president and Southern California market leader of Enterprise Community Partners; and Antwone Fisher, an author and screenwriter who spent years homeless when he was a teenager.
Fisher talked about being born in prison to his incarcerated mother, escaping foster home abuse, and living on the streets until joining the Navy, where he served for 11 years. Later, he worked as a prison guard, then as a security guard for a Hollywood studio, when he began to write his life story. His improbable journey became New York Times bestseller “Finding Fish” and Hollywood movie “Antwone Fisher,” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.
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Fisher said that, as a young person, he spent so many years in the foster system, then living on the streets, that his self-confidence and expectation of ever owning a home was shattered. Only after he “grew up” in the Navy, got married, had children, and found some career success, did he finally imagine that homeownership would be possible — even in the ultra-pricey Los Angeles market that is unaffordable for so many people.
“I had never had a house before, and when I got the key, the confidence that it gave me, well, it (probably) accelerated my career in some ways and the way I felt about myself,” Fisher said. “You know, when you have a city of people who can’t afford housing, it does something to the morale of the city. And I think you want people to feel that confidence when they get out into the world and try to do their best.”
For others on the panel, Fisher’s story represented a stirring, real-life example of the toll that unaffordable housing takes on millions of lives.
“Antwone, thank you for putting such a very personal face to this crisis,” said Reckford, who noted that homelessness has increased in recent years as dramatic price hikes have made housing of all types even more unaffordable.
“I think homelessness is more physically visible, while the lack of adequate housing has long been relatively invisible,” Reckford said. “Now, however, even middle- and upper-middle-class families are seeing that their children can’t afford housing, which suddenly makes the issue more visible.”
Waggoner of Enterprise Community Partners said people of color are affected disproportionately by the crisis in homelessness and unaffordable housing. In Los Angeles, for example, African Americans make up 8% of the overall population, but 30% of the homeless population, she noted.
“People are sleeping on our sidewalks, living in our shelters, trying to get permanent housing solutions,” she said. “And we have so many people who are priced out of the market — nurses, teacher’s aides, parking attendants, and others who don’t have reasonable housing options they can afford.
“We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we do have some expertise, and we have a checkbook.”
— Jon Campbell, head of Wells Fargo Corporate Philanthropy and Community Relations
“So as we try to infuse strategies to help people, we really have to talk about equity and inclusion and elevating policies and practices that support diversity to help people who need a leg up,” Waggoner added.
For Wells Fargo, which works with Habitat and Enterprise Community Partners, the investment in solutions to homelessness and unaffordable housing will only increase in the coming years, Campbell said.
“We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we do have some expertise, and we have a checkbook. We think that by combining a checkbook with some expertise and some (volunteer) bodies, we can work on some real solutions. So we need new ideas and solutions to get more people into safe and affordable housing.”
Fisher said he’s encouraged by Wells Fargo’s commitment to the issues.
“I’m happy to be here in support of Wells Fargo for what they’re trying to do around the country for housing affordability,” he said in an interview with Wells Fargo Stories. “I think it is, well, noble, that a bank like Wells Fargo, with their resources, wants to help people and communities. I hate to use the word noble, but I really can’t think of any other word for it.”