Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Housing advocacy needs a coordinated approach

by Chris Estes, National Housing Conference

The affordable housing community must address the question of how we navigate federal housing policy when so many issues are in play: funding for HUD and USDA Rural Development programs; the impact of tax reform, particularly on the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and New Markets Tax Credit; reform of the flood insurance program with major implications for affordability and potential changes to regulations on lending rules, CRA, broadband and fair housing, just to name a few. Given this, NHC is working proactively to build relationships with the new administration, advocate for housing in the federal budget and provide resources members like you can use as you engage in this work yourself.

Having been approved by the Senate Banking Committee, we now await the final vote to confirm Dr. Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. This will allow appointments of the HUD senior leadership team to begin, giving the housing community a better sense of the direction of the agency under the new administration. A similar process is also in play at USDA as we wait to learn who will lead the Rural Development division.

As NHC and the rest of the housing community establish relationships at HUD and USDA and learns more about agendas and priorities, we will also move into education and advocacy on the budget process itself. Coordinating our efforts will be key, as no single organization has the capacity work across all issues simultaneously. We believe the budget and in particular the budget caps for non-defense discretionary programs are the first place for us to focus.

Right now the assumption is that the budget for non-defense discretionary programs (which include housing and other non-entitlement programs that support low and moderate income households) will face pressure if defense spending is increased. Previous bipartisan budget agreements held that if non-defense spending was cut, defense would be cut also and the same was true if one category was increased, based in part on insistence from the White House. How this plays out with a new White House and its impact on the overall budget category numbers will be the first real opportunity for education and advocacy by the affordable housing and community development fields.

Given the efforts of many to connect with members of Congress, White House and agency staff, the full spectrum of the affordable housing community will need to come together to advocate using consistent messages that encompass the continuum of housing and community development programs. Consistent communications is essential in the crowded media and advocacy landscape.

Messages framing housing as infrastructure tie directly to one of the administration’s priorities, and have long-term narrative change benefits as well. We hope that groups will find ways to weave this frame into their education efforts so that we can build a collective case for how our work positively impacts local communities.

This is why NHC has focused so much energy-- and why I have focused much of the last 25 years of my career-- on the importance of messaging and framing. We still too often attempt to educate and build support with messages tested only on ourselves, or assume that if we just show how bad the need is everyone will become a supporter. These assumptions have not been borne out by results, so it is time to change our approach. To that end we have a couple of resources for you to consider.

NHC hosted a webinar last week, “Why Housing Messages Backfire and What We Can Do.” Thanks to our partners at the FrameWorks Institute and Enterprise Community Partners for speaking on this webinar, which attracted over 1,100 registrants. If you missed this webinar, you can view it and the slides on our website.

Another opportunity for you to consider is NHC’s Solutions for Housing Communications 2017 Convening, April 27-28 in Minneapolis. This event focuses on how overcoming community opposition is central to changing the narrative on affordable housing and community development locally, to ultimately create political will nationally. Early bird registration is still available for this event, and members receive a significant discount. I hope to see you there. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Reducing the impact of trauma on vulnerable individuals and communities

by Janet Viveiros, National Housing Conference

A story in the Hechinger Report last month shows how schools in New Orleans have incorporated trauma-informed teaching methods and treat students as “sad, not bad.” I was struck by the parallels between this story and a previous NHC report, “Strengthening Economic Self-Sufficiency Programs,” which describes how constant exposure to high levels of toxic stress changes the way individuals’ brains process information and the way people will handle challenging situations. 

This means that traditional program designs or policies for affordable housing and other social programs may be in direct contrast to the needs of the population they serve. Strict rules and zero tolerance standards can be triggers for additional stress and trauma. Programs that are guided by this understanding are often referred to as “trauma-informed.” Trauma-informed policies and teaching strategies are flexible and empower individuals to guide their process and be reflective and are critical to effectively serving individuals who are exposed to constant toxic stresses such as violence, poverty and marginalization.

It can be particularly challenging for children who have experienced trauma to follow strict school behavioral rules and this often leads to suspensions causing them to miss days of learning, which can further add to a child’s stress if they fall behind their peers. The schools described in the Hechinger Report have shifted away from zero-tolerance behavioral policies that result in suspension and expulsion, and instead work one-on-one with students to work through the challenges the student faces while offering them support to sort through their feelings in a safe environment. 

In the housing sphere, organizations like BRIDGE Housing have taken a trauma-informed approach to community building by working to “de-escalate chaos and stress” for residents and focus on building stronger interpersonal connections and empowering them to take leadership in building community.  

As the national discussion on how to support the well-being of marginalized groups and individuals continues, it is important to develop trauma-informed strategies that reflect the complex experiences and needs of individuals who have experienced serious trauma. If your organization uses trauma-informed strategies in its work, I’d like to hear from you. Please share them in the comments or contact me.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Appropriations will be messy, again

by Ethan Handelman, National Housing Conference

Legislative battles over federal spending decisions are gearing up again, both for the already delayed FY 2017 appropriations and the upcoming FY 2018 budget. Affordable housing should be a priority, but with the many downward pressures on non-defense discretionary spending, only a very strong united push from housing stakeholders can be effective.

First, consider what most is in jeopardy. Politically, the last thing any elected official wants to cut is something that displaces or evicts people. Within HUD, 80 percent to 85 percent of the annual budget simply keeps people housed: project-based rental assistance, Housing Choice Vouchers, public housing and homeless assistance programs. The remainder is mostly HOME and CDBG, the block grant programs that go to help create housing, preserve housing and help people who haven’t yet been helped.

For FY 2017 spending, which Congress must address in April when the current continuing resolution (CR) expires, Congress will be seeking the path of least pain. Just extending the CR won’t entirely work for affordable housing, because program costs rise with rents, and as we all know, rents are going up. But to create what’s called an anomaly in the CR to pay rising rental cost, Congress needs to find money from elsewhere to stay under the budget caps. Often, this money comes from within the same appropriations bill, but that is more a custom than a requirement. As we are all seeing, past performance is not necessarily a predictor of future results.

The picture for FY 2018 looks similar, in that the underlying tension between rising costs and the limited reach of existing assistance remains. The budget cap under current law is even tighter for FY 2018 because sequestration caps are back in force, unless Congress changes it. Furthermore, decisions on several other fronts will affect how much money there is to spend. A new infrastructure spending bill seems likely soon, although funding sources are unclear. The Trump Administration has promised a border wall, and House Speaker Paul Ryan has discussed a supplemental appropriations bill to pay for it. Tax reform is in the works, too, and the Trump Administration has expressed a desire to increase military spending. Factor in the surprises that always seem to complicate federal policy, and the competition for scarce federal dollars looks to be intense.

Unity is our best strategy in this environment. Strong, coordinated voices calling for investment in affordable housing as part of economicinfrastructure, as a basic part of the safety net and as a key to revitalizing communities can make a difference. If, however, we choose what NHC President Chris Estes calls “siloed defense” that supports one housing program by cutting down others, we will ultimately lose. A variety of voices making the case for housing in different ways will be most effective with some baseline coordination as we all communicate our messages.

NHC is working to bring national organizations with voices on housing together and to be a resource for all housing stakeholders in their advocacy. We aim to coordinate more than lead, because we want to make your voices stronger. Existing campaigns like CHCDF, NDD United, the ACTION Campaign, United for Homes, Home Matters and others are making a difference thanks to the many voices that support them.

It’s going to be a challenging season, during which we need champions on both sides of the aisle who understand the value of investing in housing. And if you think appropriations are messy, just wait for tax reform.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Housing is infrastructure

by Kaitlyn Snyder & Rebekah King, National Housing Conference 

Housing provides infrastructure our neighborhoods and cities need to thrive; it provides a home to the workers who are keeping local businesses running. Having affordable housing near jobs helps connect people to economic activity, just in a slightly different way than roads, bridges and airports do. At the National Housing Conference, we’re concerned that our country’s affordable housing infrastructure is not meeting our nation’s needs, and we hope to see affordable housing included in any major infrastructure legislation.

Much like bridges or roads, housing infrastructure lasts a long time and can be an asset or an eyesore in communities, depending on how well we maintain it. Some parts of our nation’s transportation and housing infrastructure is aging and chronic disinvestment has left some of it unable to meet growing demand. A prime example is some of our public housing stock, the oldest of which dates back to the 1930s, and which has seen many years of inadequate capital funding. Other privately owned affordable housing properties also need preservation, as affordability covenants expire and structures age. Fortunately, we have proven solutions for recapitalizing existing affordable housing, usually relying on the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit in combination with other public and private resources. Public housing in particular has made great use of the Rental Assistance Demonstration to preserve affordability and invest for the long term. To make sure public-private partnership approaches can reach all of the communities with preservation needs, affordable housing infrastructure needs more investment to meet growing demand.

In places that are thriving we need more affordable housing, just like we need more transportation options, water connections, roads and schools to address growing populations. Building housing, especially affordable housing, near job centers ensures that the workforce has a place to sleep at night and would help to ease congestion on transportation infrastructure – be it roads or mass transit. In places that are seeing population declines, we need to revitalize the existing infrastructure to make it attractive to potential new residents and to assure businesses that their investment can attract workers.

In addition to the need to meet growing demand, we’ve made technological advancements that should be standard in any new housing. Housing, as is true with all infrastructure, can serve as a skeleton that is continually improved upon as new technology becomes available. Despite our lead reduction efforts, too many of our nation’s homes still have lead in them and pose serious threats to our children. We know the power of improvements like energy efficiency, access to broadband and strong air filtration systems to reduce energy bills, improve educational and economic outcomes and improve health. These cost-effective improvements should be more widely available.

Any infrastructure package put forth by President Trump and Congress should include funding to improve access to affordable housing and ensure that it is a long-lasting community asset. We encourage others to think about infrastructure in this holistic way to address our nation’s structural needs. This post is the first in a series from members of the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding tying housing to infrastructure. Look for the next blog post from the Housing Assistance Council on February 8.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Placing housing costs in context

by Brian Stromberg,
National Housing Conference

National data on an issue like housing affordability is important to informing the creation of good federal policy. However, as with most things, the national perspective can miss the multitudes of experiences for different communities. Part of this comes from the relationship between housing costs and the other costs that households have to negotiate. Taking the time to examine the impact of these various expenditures on the ground for different households in different parts of the country is just as important as presenting a broad national picture. 

"More than Housing," a supplement to the 2016 version of our annual report, "Paycheck to Paycheck," describes how housing affordability can vary from household to household, depending on how much money they make, whether they rent or own and what part of the country they live in. One characteristic that is nearly universal across the United States is that households spend more on housing costs than on any other expense, whether renting or owning, low-income or high-income. However, housing costs vary significantly between certain demographic groups. 

Take, for example, the difference that income makes in what percentage of a household’s earnings go toward housing costs. For households in the top 20 percent of earners (the highest quintile), housing costs take up just under 30 percent of total household expenditures. For households in the bottom 20 percent (the lowest quintile), housing costs are significantly higher at 40 percent.

Looking even more closely at this bottom 20 percent, the disparity increases more when tenure is taken into account. Housing costs take up nearly 50 percent of household expenditures for renters in the bottom 20 percent, while owners’ share of expenditures on housing is around 38 percent.

Income is just one of the socioeconomic factors under consideration in the supplement. The others, which include tenure and geography, provide even more context for understanding how housing affordability plays out for individual households. You can find the supplemental report here, and make sure to check out the main "Paycheck to Paycheck" report, as well. While you’re at it, also try out the data tool to learn more about affordability in your community.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Housers must unite to face the challenges of 2017

by Chris Estes, 
National Housing Conference

I hope you had a safe enjoyable holiday season! All of us here at NHC wish you a happy and successful 2017.

With the new year comes the launch of our new logo, which you may have noticed in the banner of this email. After NHC and its research affiliate, the Center for Housing Policy were combined in 2013, we undertook a strategic planning effort to renew the organization’s work and strategies. Coming out of this effort, NHC launched a rebranding process to ensure that how we talk about ourselves matches our work plan and role in the affordable housing and community development sector.

What you’ll notice first, along with our updated logo, is that all of our future research publications will be published exclusively by NHC. This streamlined approach will help our relatively small organization stand out in a crowded D.C. advocacy landscape.

This positioning comes at a time in which a broad-based coalition of affordable housing organizations is needed more than ever. USDA and HUD housing programs will face pressure from both deficit reduction and other spending and tax cuts. Adding to that uncertainty will be tax reform efforts impacting the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program.

It will be critical for our community to have a national voice and coalition-building organization that can advocate for bipartisan solutions. There are will be many opportunities for reform and needed change, as well as for informed dialog on what to protect.

NHC will build on our How Housing Matters conference and Solutions for Affordable Housing convening of December 2016. How Housing Matters highlighted the significant evidence and success in cross-sector partnerships that improve outcomes in education, economic opportunity and health through affordable housing. We are committed to working with other national partners on keeping this evidence and practice at the forefront of future policy and budgetary discussions at all levels of government going forward.

At Solutions for Affordable Housing we featured discussions about the future of major housing issues as well as what we can learn from innovations at the local and state levels. These include important issues like the many connections between housing and opportunity and the future of public housing, as well as the National Flood Insurance Program and the impact of the lack of access to credit on homeownership, which have received less attention.

Going forward these issues represent coalition-building opportunities for NHC and our member-partners to engage with the new Congress and presidential administration as we work to improve the environment for affordable housing in this country.

We look forward to being a consistent source of information for our members over the coming year and to partnering on important policy opportunities with other national, state and local housing groups across the housing continuum. These are all reasons why being a member and supporter of NHC is so valuable. We thank you for your support and hope you will continue to help NHC in our work in 2017!

New Year’s resolutions for Fannie and Freddie

by Ethan Handelman,
National Housing Conference

In the middle of December, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) released its final rule implementing the Duty to Serve obligation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2008. The rule creates a process for Fannie and Freddie to create underserved market plans that lay out ways each company will try to better reach people and places not currently well-served by the mortgage market. Unlike the typical case of a final rule, this one means it’s time for you to get involved. Fannie, Freddie and FHFA are listening to your ideas for these underserved market plans, so now’s the time to propose ideas, even more so than during the rulemaking process.

Here’s my super quick version of what is to come with Duty to Serve (for more detail, FHFA has a fact sheet and the rule itself):

FHFA issues evaluation guidance, which then starts a 90-day drafting period for Fannie’s and Freddie’s underserved market plans.
Fannie and Freddie each submit draft underserved markets plans to FHFA for review and for public comment (60 days).
Comments from FHFA and the public may result in revisions, after which we can expect FHFA to issue (at its discretion) the precisely named non-objections to the three sections of each plan.
Fannie and Freddie then implement their three-year plans with periodic reporting to FHFA and opportunity to request changes.
FHFA will evaluate performance annually, and in three years the cycle begins again.

Now is the time to propose ideas for what Fannie and Freddie can do in their plans. FHFA was careful not to be prescriptive in the final rule; much of the detail will emerge in the plans. Types of activities include outreach to underserved market participants, development of loan products, purchases of loans and investments (but not grants, under conservatorship). The activities must fit into the three types of underserved markets laid out in statute: Manufactured housing, affordable housing preservation and rural housing.

There’s lots of room for interesting affordable housing work in each of those areas. Have a nifty loan product you’d like to see tested? Want to make sure Fannie and Freddie only purchase sustainable chattel loans on manufactured homes? Are there ways to preserve apartment properties you think Fannie and Freddie should expand? Do you know better ways to expand rural housing lending? Share your ideas at one of the listening sessions coming up between Jan. 25 and Feb. 9, then watch for the underserved market plans to be released and comment on what they propose.

These underserved market plans will be like New Year’s resolutions, with the essential addition of an independent federal agency making sure they are followed. Get involved to make sure the Duty to Serve makes real, positive change.