Reframing Government’s—And Our Own—Role in Affordable Housing

Posted by Amy Clark on June 19, 2015

Last Tuesday Scott Brown and Henry Cisneros, who serve on the executive committee of the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families, wrote an opinion column for Fox News urging presidential candidates to address America’s housing affordability challenges. The former senator and former HUD secretary, citing the role of access to affordable housing in upward mobility and the country’s future prosperity, call for a “bipartisan policy response” to the nation’s housing challenges.

Comments on the article, on the other hand, call for the government to get out of housing: “After the bang up job that government has done with any part of the economy they touch,” said commenter Elbowmacaroni, “I'll tend to favor a candidate who proposes to let the market work.”

That sentiment isn’t unique to the Fox News audience. On the same day, the MacArthur Foundation released its How Housing Matters poll, an annual survey of national housing attitudes conducted by Hart Research Associates. The survey found that a majority . . .

(53 percent) of Americans think that housing affordability “is not really the responsibility of the federal government.” At the same time, 75 percent think it should be a high priority for elected leaders in Washington, and 79 percent think it should be a priority for local or state elected officials.

How do we make sense of these contradictory opinions? According to Rebecca Naser, who led the study for Hart, there are three factors at play. First, many Americans ("Elbowmacaroni" seemingly among them) have a serious lack of confidence in what the federal government can get done, and in whether what it accomplishes will have the public’s best interests in mind. Second, it’s difficult for people to conceptualize what exactly the federal government can do for housing affordability, besides programs like public housing, which don’t serve most people, and programs like food stamps, which don’t directly address housing needs. Finally, that lack of confidence in government and lack of understanding of what government can do combines to create opposition to government intervention in general, at any level.

Clearly, there is work to do to educate the public about the positive impact government at all levels can have in ensuring access to affordable housing. Introducing housing affordability with values based messages can help bridge this divide. If people don’t understand or agree about the role of government, starting our conversations about affordable housing with talk about policy is a sure way to lose. Instead, we can focus on universal values like opportunity, fairness, safety and health. Connecting affordable housing to things people already care about and believe in will help them see that housing affordability is a problem worth trying to solve.

The How Housing Matters Survey shows we need to help people conceptualize what government intervention in housing can do— in a good way!— for people and communities. This means using the majority of our communications not to detail problems, but to describe solutions. Chances are, most people don’t know that new development in town was funded by the LIHTC or your local housing trust fund. Share good examples of government at work in housing to paint a vivid picture of what can be achieved.

Finally, we need to talk about government differently. We must remind people of the mission and purpose of government, calling to mind the systems and structures of government they encounter and rely on. We also need to take care when criticizing the government. We’ve all heard conversations where a single complaint about how HUD or a local housing agency operates snowball into the conclusion that the agency is the single greatest barrier to getting housing done. If that’s how advocates like us talk about the government, what can we expect to hear from the general public? We need to adopt a “citizen-manager” frame in our criticisms of government: we are the caretakers of the system of government we created, and we can direct it to accomplish our goals.

Housing and community development advocates can’t change decades of distrust into support overnight, but we can do more to help people understand the real value government can bring to addressing the challenges our communities face every day. Starting with values, emphasizing solutions, and reframing the role of government are tools all of us can use to get there.

I’d like to start a conversation here to learn how others are empowering their constituencies to make informed decisions about their government at all levels, and sharing concrete examples of good work in government intervention in housing with them.

Photo: By Ryan, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Amy Clark is director of marketing and communications at the National Housing Conference.

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Joan Carty
23 Jun 15, 8:21 am

These points are well taken. I also believe that many people are easily overwhelmed in these stressful times and respond better to positive messages. Everyone in the affordable housing field has contributed to stories of success. Let’s commit to sharing more of those stories.

Anthony Jones
23 Jun 15, 11:57 am

Well put Amy.  I agree with those who say government can’t do it. But, it’s not quite as simple as that.  Historically, government has provided only a tiny share of housing for lower income folk.  It really has been the private sector.  But there was always a government incentive. In the 80’s, eliminating passive losses drew millions of mom & pop landlords out of the business. OTOH, FHA mortgage insurance, another government incentive, is responsible for millions of Americans owning their own home. Only when government provides the right carrot (and stick), has the private sector stepped up. 

But to your main point…  Yes, our sector definitely has a language issue.  Nearly all of our jargon is stuck in the War on Poverty.  It just is no longer relevant to that common citizen, even the enlightened and well-meaning ones.  Take the word “housing.” It is saddled with negative connotations and the culture of the victim. Nobody, even homeless families, want to be “housed.” They want a home or an apartment or something less clinical. Even most of us advocates who have a roof over our heads don’t go home at night to our “housing.”  And don’t get me started on “affordable”...

At a recent conference, a presenter made a simple statement that has stuck with me and shaped how I try to talk about our sector. I’ll probably misquote, but it was something like: Hard working families who play by the rules and do the right thing deserve a place to call home.  Compare that to our usual scholarly articles about “the shortage of affordable housing for extremely low income families.”  Unless you’re in the business, the latter probably does not resonate with you at all.  However, it is hard for the most hardened among us not to agree with the former.

I would love to be part of a concerted effort to change the entire vernacular of our work and bring it into the digital age.  We need language that can be tweeted and texted and put on bumper stickers. Language that speaks to our constituents, not talks at them.

Amy Clark
30 Jun 15, 4:02 pm

Joan, thank you for your comment. I agree with you that we need to stay positive for the reason you mention. As for stories, in your part of the housing world do you see a lot of examples of good storytelling? What do you think we need to be working on?

Amy Clark
30 Jun 15, 4:06 pm

Anthony, thank you for your insight. I agree that we tend to fall back on academic-sounding language (I’m as guilty of this as anyone) and need to get better at talking about things in a way that people can see themselves and their communities in our work. What do you think it will take to, as you say, “bring the vernacular of our work forward?”

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