3 Early Housing Affordability Takeaways 

Launching a Deep Dive into the Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge Proposals

Christi Smith
A women presenting to a group

In the summer of 2019, Wells Fargo granted Enterprise Community Partners the extraordinary opportunity to lead a $20 million challenge calling for innovations in how affordable housing is built, financed and supports resident’s stability and empowerment. Five months later, I had the good fortune to join Enterprise as senior program director, tasked with administering the Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge. What an amazing journey it has been so far.

The Breakthrough Challenge’s goals extend well beyond grantmaking to include:

  • Identifying, accelerating and scaling promising ideas, models and approaches
  • Providing peer-to-peer learning and networking opportunities
  • Sharing ideas and models that engage a wider audience in the search for innovations 

We proudly announced our six winners on September 22. News of the $2.5 million awards came after the final round of the challenge, which featured a virtual pitch day event.  An expert panel of judges representing affordable housing and community development leaders from across the country heard 15 finalists hone their ideas into 10-minute presentations and had the difficult job of choosing the six winning innovations.


HABC Data Analysis Infographic



An Important Story to Tell

While we celebrate the winners and the work that lies ahead in transforming their breakthrough ideas into scalable solutions, we also acknowledge the 885 inspiring Round 1 proposals submitted from 49 states as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The infographic below provides a breakdown of the applications received across the challenge’s three focus areas.

From the start, Enterprise and Wells Fargo knew that, collectively, these applications and the hundreds of unique housing affordability projects they proposed had an important story to tell. What is the state of innovation in our field? How can philanthropy funds innovations? What federal, state and local resources are available to help realize them? 

In search of answers to these questions and more, we’ve embarked on a deep dive to find new insights, uncover common themes and reveal emerging trends. Behind thousands of pages of application narratives lies a rich dataset that promises to help us make critical links and create an environment more conducive to inspiring and advancing next-generation ideas. 

The Breakthrough Challenge team is working with Enterprise Advisors to structure and analyze the data to identify key innovation trends and themes occurring across the applications. We are studying the characteristics of the organizations (and their partners) that applied, the geographic footprint of the proposed innovations, and are creating a system for indexing the content to capture word and phrase frequency across the applications. 

Early Takeaways 

As we begin this analysis, we’ve made three notable observations.

  1. The field is focused on serving residents who earn the least. Nearly 70% of all innovations across the three focus areas were designed to serve residents with incomes between 0 and 30% of Area Median Income (AMI); 85% of all proposed innovations were designed to serve residents earning between 30 and 60% AMI. This highlights the strong role that innovation can play in addressing the nation’s housing affordability challenges.
  2. Smaller organizations play a big role. Although we received applications from organizations in a range of sizes, the vast majority had few employees. Housing Construction and Housing Finance applicants tended to be the smallest. More than half of all Housing Finance applicants had 15 or fewer employees, and 40% of all Housing Construction applicants had five or fewer. Resident Services and Support applicants were somewhat larger on average, pointing to service delivery staffing needs. Still, the majority had 50 or fewer employees. This trend highlights the importance of supporting organizations with successfully scaling their innovations so they reach the people and places where they’re vital. It also underscores the value of the capacity-building and technical assistance resources Enterprise provides to organizations across the country.
  3. The public sector is key to enabling innovation. Nearly 20% of all applications identified at least one public sector partner as part of their application team, and many more discussed public sector roles in their application. Partners included entities such as state and local governments, school districts, public housing authorities and tribal governing bodies, demonstrating the diversity of public sector actors involved in meeting housing affordability challenges.
HABC Data Analysis Infographic

A Deeper Look Ahead 

Our early findings will inform the next phase of the analysis: a closer look at the content of the applications. We’re setting out to answer some key questions, including:

  • Who are the people to be served by these innovations and where do they live?
  • What similarities do we see across the innovations? Common characteristics and approaches? 
  • How central are racial equity and environmental concerns to housing challenges and innovations? 

These and other insights will help inform new tools and guidance toward moving the dial on housing affordability solutions. I look forward to sharing them with you.

Nearly 900 Entries: What We Learned 

Christi Smith, a senior program director on Enterprise’s National Initiatives team, directs the Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge. To follow the progress of our Breakthrough Challenge winners and their innovations, subscribe here