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.