Impact Investing Unpacked: Closing the Housing Gap

By Dr. Sylvia Kwan

In early October, I was in Las Vegas for a board meeting and got the chance to help serve Sunday dinner at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, a shelter not far from the Las Vegas Strip that provides 30,000 meals each month. While I’ve served at other shelters, soup kitchens, and churches, the Las Vegas activity really stuck with me.

The Mission was just 12 minutes away from my hotel on the Strip, but the difference those minutes made was startling. The Strip overflowed with glitz and glamor, celebrity chef restaurants, non-stop entertainment, designer stores, and money that was easily lost and won. But near the Mission? Streets lined with the tents of people experiencing homelessness. No shiny billboards, no restaurants, no shops nearby. The area looked like an abandoned city.

My job at the dinner service was to hand out cups and utensils. As hundreds of unhoused people lined the large dining room, I was immediately struck by the broad diversity of the guests. Homelessness doesn’t discriminate. I saw families, singles, the old, the young, and people of all genders and backgrounds. Everyone, without exception, was courteous and cheerful, in spite of their difficult circumstances. As I greeted each person, I wondered what transpired in their life that brought them to the Mission on this day. 

Homelessness is a pressing issue that strikes me deeply. Living in San Francisco, it’s highly visible and always top of mind. It’s hugely complex and requires as many solutions as there are reasons for it. I often think about the catalysts that throw people into homelessness. The data shows that it doesn’t take much. More than three-quarters of Americans do not have sufficient savings to cover one month’s worth of living expenses. 63% of employees can't cover an emergency expense of $500. And in California, the vast majority of unhoused people reported that a subsidy of just $300 a month could have prevented them from experiencing homelessness.

When I was a kid, I remember a family friend (we’ll call him Mr. Peters) ringing our doorbell late one evening. My dad greeted him at the door, they spoke for a few minutes, and then he left. I found out later that Mr. Peters came up short on rent that month and asked my dad for a loan. Instead, my dad gifted him the rent money, so Mr. Peters could get back on solid financial footing without the burden of a loan. At the time, I was really puzzled; the Peters weren’t poor. They were like our family — squarely middle class. As I reflect on that memory now, I have a fresh appreciation of how quickly families can fall into debt and down a slippery slope into homelessness. 

We can, of course, support the many organizations and non-profits who are doing the hard work of helping to feed, clothe, and house people experiencing homelessness. But I believe we can do more — by using the power of our investment capital. The lack of affordable housing supply is one of the primary problems leading to homelessness. California spent an astonishing $17.5 billion to combat homelessness from 2018 to 2022, only to see the homeless population rise during that period. While that’s enough money to have paid the rent for each of the state’s 170,000 unhoused persons, there wouldn’t have been enough affordable housing for everyone.

The good news is that there are multiple ways to invest in affordable and workforce housing — including investments that also potentially generate returns. 

At Ellevest, we currently offer two funds that focus on the preservation and development of affordable housing — both government-subsidized housing and multi-family housing with rents kept at an affordable level for the area’s median household income or lower. Both funds provide ancillary residential programs where needed to help residents with services such as financial education and literacy, job training, nutritional guidance, and child care and after-school programs. 

One of these funds goes even further: it rents units to those experiencing homelessness through the Lotus Campaign, a non-profit with a highly innovative housing-driven solution to address homelessness through partnerships with landlords and non-profits. This particular fund manager is also ranked in the top 5% of all value-add real estate managers by the consulting firm Cambridge Associates.* Yes, you can potentially do well (really, really well in this case) and do good through impact investing.

We believe venture investing is one of the most promising ways to fund innovative solutions to pressing problems, and tackling homelessness is no exception. At Ellevest, we have clients invested in a venture fund focused exclusively on companies with breakthrough technology to significantly reduce the costs and time of housing construction. The fund’s goal and mission is to help close the global housing gap. In another venture fund offering, clients invested in a manufacturing company that developed temporary, private shelter villages that can be constructed in a matter of days. These shelters are already being used to house people experiencing homelessness in 100 communities across 16 states. 

Solutions can (and should) come from everywhere. Benjamin Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” His words couldn’t ring truer when it comes to homelessness. Yes, we need to offer help to those who are currently unhoused, but I’d like to think we can slow the tide of homelessness through prevention. 

One potential way to do that? Investing to preserve and increase affordable housing supply, and investing in innovation to close the housing gap. 

Connect with our all-women team of Ellevest Private Wealth advisors to learn more.


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*As of 12/31/2022.

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Dr. Sylvia Kwan

Dr. Sylvia Kwan is the Chief Investment Officer of Ellevest.