Silence on the Stump
Talk of housing is notably absent from the presidential campaigns, but there are efforts underway trying to drive the housing issue home for good.
By Winton Pitcoff Posted on October 10, 2012
Talk of jobs and the economy dominate the 2012 election cycle. Given the role of housing in the economic crash, it would be easy to assume that housing and community development issues would be part of that discussion.
When the housing boom and bust exposed systemic weaknesses in the housing market, they affected a wider swath of homeowners than the modest-income families and residents of communities of color that consumer and civil rights groups had long been trying to defend. This “mainstreaming” of a broken lending system brought housing to the forefront of the national debate.
Unfortunately, that debate has remained largely absent on the campaign trail in the 2012 election cycle. Housing advocates are still struggling to get candidates and sitting elected officials to even engage in discussions about where they stand on these issues.
But that may be changing. This year, housing groups are holding town halls and rallies around the country and sending petitions and postcards to the campaigns. They’re stepping up their state-level lobbying efforts, forming new coalitions, and calling on candidates to commit to their principles. They’re bringing together public officials, housing advocates and experts, and community leaders to talk about problems in the housing market that have hobbled neighborhood revitalization and have led to Americans losing their homes to foreclosure.
Home for Good
The Home for Good campaign was launched in early 2011 by the Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization National Council of La Raza (NCLR), working alongside other groups, including the National Urban League, National Fair Housing Alliance, Center for American Progress, and National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD). Its goal is to put housing-related issues back on the political map using a focused call for candidates to commit to three points: stop needless foreclosures, expand affordable rental housing, and revive a sustainable path to homeownership.
Home for Good launched its campaign to respond to long- and near-term issues on Capitol Hill and at Treasury and began by addressing issues ranging from reversing the defunding of vital housing counseling services in fy2012 to helping secure 12-month forbearance for unemployed homeowners. This year, Home for Good has emphasized informing communities about the National Foreclosure Settlement and encouraging congressional and presidential candidates to offer up solutions to reform the housing market and stop the rapid deterioration of our neighborhoods.
“We need an educated voter base,” says Nancy Wilberg Ricks, policy analyst at NCLR. The campaign has published an extensive legislative scorecard, tallying how each member of Congress voted on key bills related to jobs, housing, and the economy.
“Our primary objective is to get the presidential candidates to talk about housing,” says Jane Duong, director of programs and advocacy at National CAPACD. “We need to keep a focus on the most vulnerable communities in the country and make sure that they are an explicit part of the conversation. With that focus, we can get more people engaged and make sure that housing is not forgotten as an issue.”
Another coalition trying to influence the political narrative is One Voice to End Homelessness. Spearheaded by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), the coalition of housing and homelessness groups asks national and local organizations to press candidates on housing-related issues and to include the following points in their election advocacy portfolios:
- Education, health care, and social services provided to all who need them,
- A dramatic increase in the availability of affordable housing,
- Sufficient personal incomes to pay for the necessities of life,
- Preventing discrimination against homeless persons, and
- Strengthening targeted homeless assistance and prevention programs.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition, National Health Care for the Homeless Council, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness are just a few of the organizations that have signed on to One Voice’s mission to end mass homelessness.
The National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations (NACEDA) is launching an effort to make the use of the National Mortgage Settlement funds by states a campaign issue, particularly in states where the first part of the settlement—$2.5 billion from the larger lenders—was not spent to help the communities most affected by the foreclosure crisis. “Some states used the money appropriately and some didn’t,” says NACEDA executive director Frank Woodruff, “and many of our state members were unhappy about this. We expect more settlements with financial institutions and mortgage lenders and we’re working hard to ensure that states use those funds appropriately. What’s more, we need to make sure that candidates are talking about how to spend all settlement dollars as they become available.”
Woodruff emphasizes the need for community-based organizations to get those candidates talking during the election, and making sure that the people who want to represent their communities are being asked questions and are giving clear answers about where they stand on housing and community development issues. Organizations too often shy away from engaging candidates, he says, for fear of running afoul of lobbying restrictions on their nonprofit status. But while there are strict rules against endorsing candidates or not giving all candidates equal time, there are no restrictions on asking questions and engaging candidates on the issues that matter to their members.
And many organizations are doing just that. At the state level, housing organizations are contacting candidates directly, doing voter education, and engaging in a range of activities to try to make housing and community development issues a focus during the election.
The Community Economic Development Association of Michigan (CEDAM), a NACEDA member, is continuing its practice of compiling a candidate survey to develop into a voter guide for their members. Gathering information for the survey is also an opportunity to educate candidates, says executive director Jamie Schriner-Hooper. The organization reaches out to everyone running for office with emails and personal phone calls. “We let them know we have constituents in their district,” she says, “and that our members are making investments in their districts.” If candidates don’t respond, CEDAM will enlist members in the targeted district to reach out to them with stories about particular projects that will make the candidate aware of the importance of the issues.
The Oregon Opportunity Network (OON), another NACEDA member, is also compiling candidate guides and organizing candidate forums, says John Miller, OON’s executive director. OON is working to have every state representative sit down with staff or community members from at least one housing organization in their district. OON is sending each of its members a gift card that can be used at Starbucks, and asking that the member send back photos of their meetings with elected officials there, as a way of tracking who has followed through.
In order to avoid having their messages lost in the crush of education and lobbying efforts from a seemingly infinite number of interests and organizations, many housing and community development groups are learning the importance of collaboration. A coalition effort, Homes for All, carried out earlier this year in Minnesota, won a $35.5 million housing bond to provide funding for public housing repairs and to address the foreclosure crisis. Revenue from any bond sale would be used to “preserve existing federally subsidized rental housing; stabilize communities impacted by the foreclosure crisis by creating new affordable housing opportunities through rental units and community land trusts; and construct or acquire and rehabilitate supportive housing, particularly for persons experiencing or at risk of experiencing long term homelessness.” This effort was successful largely because of the broad range of organizations that were behind the effort, says Chip Halbach, executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP).
“We heard from some legislators how they appreciated that the housing and homeless groups came forward with a single proposal,” says Halbach. Where in the past a range of organizations—from land trusts to homeless advocates to rental advocates to builders—all visited lawmakers to push their own agendas, they were disciplined in this battle, he said. “Nobody in the coalition fought for carve-outs for their own pet issue. The proposal puts a number of projects into a single pool with no earmarks for the legislature to have to consider.”
The coalition, which also included labor unions, highlighted the need for workforce housing in communities that have actually done well in spite of the recession, but are short on housing that new hires can afford. Engaging building trade unions in the campaign has helped connect the need for new construction of housing to job creation for a wide range of laborers, and that connection has helped make legislators and candidates pay attention, says Halbach.
Homes for All is also working together on the 2012 elections, says Halbach, and with organizations like the Twin Cities chapter of Habitat for Humanity playing key roles, the reach and impact of their work is likely to be greater than in past election cycles. Efforts around the campaign are still in the planning stages, but the goal is for housing advocates to have one-on-one meetings with all legislative candidates running in districts in the Twin Cities area, as well as those running for open seats in the more rural parts of the state and those who hold seats on key committees, like housing, appropriations, bonding, and taxes. The period between the election and the start of the new legislative session is also important, Halbach says, and efforts will be made to meet with newly elected legislators during that time.
Watch Your Language
Advocates are becoming more mindful and more sophisticated in how they communicate their message. They’ve learned, for example, that words like “affordable” and phrases like “affordable housing” are stigmatized, often conjuring up images of failed high-rise developments—even if those images are based on antiquated impressions. “We’ve eradicated that phrase from our language,” says Staci Berger, policy director at the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. Instead, the Network talks about “‘creating homes people can afford,’ which is what everyone wants for themselves and others,” Berger says.
Berger suggests that advocates should also avoid using overly technical language and to steer clear of the acronyms that pervade the industry, in an effort to avoid clouding the message and giving the perception that there are outsiders and insiders in housing issues. Housing has to do with everyone, she says, and the message needs to reflect that.
Miller, of the Oregon Opportunity Network, echoes Berger’s belief that the term “affordable housing” no longer resonates well. His organization is even sidestepping the word “housing” in favor of “homes.” It’s hard for politicians to oppose the message that everyone has a right to a safe, decent home that they can afford, he says.
“We also try not to talk about what our members do as a service that they provide for some people, but that they are building community and doing economic development and providing employment opportunities,” says Berger. “We talk about how creating homes is an economic engine. And having good housing is critical if you’re going to get and keep a job.” Raising the points that housing construction creates jobs and housing stability helps people with job retention makes legislators take note, since employment is such a key issue right now. When candidates focus on employment issues, then, it’s not a rebuff of housing, but an opportunity to agree and point out that the two issues are closely related.
“Everyone agrees that funding these programs is important,” says Miller, but with exceptionally tight budgets challenges arise when funding housing programs means having less funding for something else. That’s when it becomes even more important to highlight the broad effects of housing on nearly everything that legislators need to make decisions about—employment, education, public works, and even health care.
The tone of the message is critical, too, says Miller. “We try to lead with the positive and highlight successful programs,” he says, rather than focusing on negative trends or criticizing politicians for their positions or past votes. “We’ve found that packing council chambers with endless testimony is not really effective,” but, he says, targeted, clear, positive messages are.
Telling the story is also a critical component, Berger says. Legislators hear from professional advocates on a daily basis, but the impact of a story from voters in their own districts can be far more powerful. An employer talking about how they can’t find good employees because people can’t afford to live in the community, or a firefighter talking about how they can’t afford a home in the town in which they serve can be very effective.
Getting Attention Creatively
A creative effort to draw attention to the issue can go a long way, particularly through social media. When OON campaigned to stop a proposed cut of safety net funds in Portland, they made a distinctive sign available online for printing that said “I support the Portland Safety Net” and encouraged supporters to take a photo of themselves holding the sign and post it to a Facebook group. More than 800 people did so, including several city council members and candidates, and even the mayor. The campaign was successful, and the council approved full funding for the programs.
During the housing bond campaign in Minnesota, MHP dusted off a character they had used during a campaign 10 years ago—a costume shaped like an apartment building called “Bill Ding.” An advocate wearing the costume appeared at a number of events in support of the bond issue, which drew media attention. A number of YouTube videos of the character were posted online.
“The challenge in getting attention to issues like these is making it real and making it stand out, not being just another interest group,” says NLCHP’s Foscarinis, and advocates agree that no amount of statistics, photos of successful housing projects, or explanation of policy from a statewide organization can ever be as effective as a single story from a family in a legislator’s own district or town. “We urge our members to emphasize people over structures,” says NACEDA’s Woodruff. “Even groups that participate in the built environment should talk about the people’s lives that are being changed, not how the horizon will look different.” Speaking to an individual or family who has been helped by a program that is on the chopping block, or who has struggled to find housing because public resources aren’t available makes candidates take note because, after all, people vote, buildings and statistics don’t.
Winton Pitcoff is a former senior editor of Shelterforce and former communications director at National Low Income Housing Coalition. He is currently a consultant and freelance writer in Western Massachusetts.