Monday, March 2, 2015

Framing housing for a new Congress

by Ethan Handelman, National Housing Conference
What we're building

The 2015 Congress has many new faces and the Senate has a new leadership, many of whom don’t see affordable housing as a natural issue for their constituency. To make the case for housing to these new leaders, we can’t lead with need. We should frame housing in terms that connect with their core values while also forthrightly challenging false narratives about housing. Housing affordability is an issue that can play well to both sides of the aisle if we make our case effectively.

Most of us as affordable housing advocates naturally think about housing need first, and we do great work to document that need effectively: NHC’s Housing Landscape and Paycheck to Paycheck, the Joint Center for Housing Studies’ State of the Nation’s Housing, NLIHC’s Out of Reach, and many more. But need alone cannot be the primary justification to legislators who see great unmet need in many places but have scarce federal resources to deploy. What makes housing stand out from childhood nutrition, education, border security, pollution, highways, veterans’ medical care or any other issue? Our case is even more difficult to make to lawmakers who perceive, rightly or wrongly, that housing groups organize politically on the other side.

Here are a few ways that housing can connect with the core values of nontraditional supporters:
  • Housing assistance can make families more self-sufficient. Public housing residents can enroll in savings programs that provide financial literacy training and other support to help build wealth. Recently, Congress expanded the Family Self-Sufficiency Program to allow residents eligible in participating privately-owned affordable housing. Policy lessons for this program build on behavioral and cognitive science, and they are effective. 
  • Housing helps kids perform better in school. A stable home, whether owned or rented, makes children healthier, reduces stress and makes them more successful in class. Affordable housing also creates opportunities for families to relocate into stronger school districts.
  • Housing leverages private capital efficiently, creating true public-private partnerships. A prime example is the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which has leveraged nearly $100 billion of private capital to create properties with private ownership, property management and asset management, in a program that only pays if properties deliver affordable housing successfully. Another is the Capital Magnet Fund, which deploys enterprise-level capital to CDFIs that use it to attract private investment (last round with an average leverage ratio of 12:1).
  • Housing construction creates jobs. Housing overall represents 17 percent or more of GDP. If we focus on affordable housing, we see a typical LIHTC property creates 116 jobs. This is more a collateral benefit to investments in housing than a leading point to make—there are more efficient ways to just create jobs—but it can be a compelling illustration of the additional benefits of investing scarce resources into housing.
Housing stakeholders should forthrightly confront misinformation even as we seek to persuade on merits. When partisan battles devolve into repetition of misinformation, as happened at a recent House Financial Services Committee hearing questioning HUD Secretary Julián Castro about the Federal Housing Administration, we should not be shy about speaking truth. We know that FHA loans provided safe, fixed-rate homeownership options and buoyed the mortgage market during the depths of the crisis. We also know it could do better to build stronger neighborhoods and empower low-income homebuyers. This is just one example of why housing stakeholders should have strong relationships on both sides of the aisle, so that lawmakers can hear first-hand how important housing is to communities across this country.

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