In the midst of a widespread US housing shortage, affordable housing is constrained in cities of all sizes—an issue made worse by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While men are more likely to experience homelessness, inadequately housed women face unique challenges that highlight other gendered inequities. Yet to incorporate a gender lens into US housing investments in a way that avoids discriminatory parameters, investors may need to turn their focus to building and preserving housing that meets the needs of low-income families more generally.

Women and Affordable Housing: Unique Challenges

Safety is among the key challenges for women struggling to secure affordable housing. A 2019 survey by the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles found that 36% of homeless women had experienced domestic or interpersonal violence in the last year, while 27% had experienced sexual assault. One University of Southern California clinician links this violence to the wider trend of poor health outcomes among homeless women. National Fair Housing Alliance president and CEO Lisa Rice also explains how reporting domestic violence can lead to eviction and notes that many women confront harassment and assault by landlords, housing staff, and real estate agents.

Economic insecurity presents another central challenge in bringing affordable housing to women facing homelessness. Between factors such as higher poverty, the wage gap, and rates of low-wage employment, American women face outsize obstacles to financial stability; these obstacles are steeper for women of color and LGBTQI women. COVID-19 has compounded some of these challenges, taking an even longer-term toll on many women’s ability to access and maintain housing.

True housing affordability must fit into a bigger picture for families. The YWCA found that a lack of affordable housing leaves many poor and low-income women unable to fund other necessities for their families. Fifteen of the 20 fastest-growing counties in the US are located 30 or more miles from the nearest business district, resulting in greater transportation costs and dramatically increased commute times for workers. This impacts job attendance and childcare options. Alleviating women’s housing cost burden requires incorporating the entire cycle of hardship, including strengthening access to affordable childcare and improving the overrepresentation of women in low-paying service jobs.

American women face outsize obstacles to financial stability; these obstacles are steeper for women of color and LGBTQI women.

How Can Impact Investing Play a Role?

The YWCA study emphasizes that affordable housing for women must be adequate, safe, and located near work and transportation in nondistressed neighborhoods with services. While the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on gender and other protected classes, investors can support progress on the issue. The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) recommends that affordable housing impact investments incorporate a gender lens in order to successfully address homelessness and housing cost burdens. By definition, these gender lens elements are captured within a range of impact investment projects to preserve and develop housing not for women specifically but for low-income families across the United States.

For example, Calvert Impact Capital has a significant portion of its loan portfolio in housing. Calvert recently invested in the $100 million Fund to Preserve Affordable Communities II, which acquires and preserves affordable housing units at risk of converting to market-rate housing. An innovator in US impact debt funds, CNote incorporates a gender lens into its investment criteria. Its Flagship Fund centers on US community development, including affordable housing. As foundations continue to align investments with mission, the Ms. Foundation recently announced impact investment in affordable housing as part of its goal to invest with a gender lens.

In addition, a growing number of publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) are turning to impact investments in affordable housing. NexPoint Residential Trust (NXRT), Reven Housing (RVEN), and Mid-America Apartment Communities (MAA) have put a focus on workforce housing for families that earn too much for subsidized housing but still face high cost burdens. Boston-based private REIT Housing Partnership Equity Trust partners with nonprofit housing developers to purchase lower-income multifamily rental properties with a commitment to keeping them affordable.