Assuming Responsibility

11 min read

State and Local Governments Fill Federal Housing Void

“The housing crisis in many ways is worse than it’s ever been. We have a 7.5 million unit shortage for the lowest income group and it’s growing. More people are experiencing homelessness than ever before. There is an explosion of people suddenly homeless. In some communities on the West Coast, real estate prices are causing severe increases that affect everybody down the line.”

So states Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), headquartered in Washington, DC. It is one of two realities on which a sizable majority of those involved with affordable housing agree. The other is that leadership, adequate funding and basic sensitivity from the federal government leaves much to be desired. As a result, governors, mayors and state and local housing organizations are having to take a greater, and because of that, more creative role in addressing the crisis.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that it hasn’t always been this way,” Yentel continues. “We don’t have to go back that far. In the late 1970s, we housed nearly everybody. If we put it in terms of 1970s dollars, HUD had authority back then to spend three times as much as today. State and local governments have to step up, but they can’t end homelessness on their own.”

“We need the federal government to be willing partners. State and local governments don’t have the luxury of not having to balance their budgets,” Flora Arabo agrees. She is national senior director of state and local policy for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., also in DC, a nonprofit aimed at “creating opportunities in affordable housing in diverse, thriving communities. . .bringing together nationwide know-how, partners, policy leadership and investment to multiply the impact of local affordable housing development.”

A Tremendous Amount of Learning
“We’re a membership organization of 1,100, including 64 state partners in 42 states,” Yentel says. “But we have 160,000 names on our list, which is a reflection of our membership: homeless services providers, developers, stakeholders, concerned citizens. The state and local organizations have their own ‘day jobs,’ but join with us to do the federal advocacy. When we need them to activate, they are our strongest partners. And how we activate at the federal level involves a tremendous amount of learning.”

Joseph “Joey” Lindstrom is NLIHC’s manager for field organizing and heads up its State Partner Project, an ongoing program that seeks to improve and expand the capacity of state housing and homeless coalitions to educate, and become more skillful in holding federal, state and local policymakers accountable for solving the housing problems of low-income people. “I think it’s entirely true that mayors and governors are stepping up with more tools and best practices,” he observes. “We’ve begun coming together and learning how to overcome common challenges. But no state or locality on its own will ever have the [necessary] resources.”

He adds, “These are tremendously challenging times. A lot of energy has been expended just in combatting backward thinking at HUD. With the administration and the leadership at HUD, for the most part it’s been a story of resistance. Some of their rules are merely punitive; they have no public policy advantage. It’s just cruelty, and the most affected ones are the children.”

“This is not a problem of people making bad decisions. This is a problem of broken systems,” says Arabo. “People are falling where there should be a safety net. This is a question of insuring basic systems and basic human rights.”

Enterprise’s state & local policy team works in state houses and city halls across the country to increase local resources for affordable housing and use existing resources more effectively to ensure that America’s rental housing stock is sustainable for the long term. It approaches policy and advocacy by working with local partners through coalitions, building relationships with policymakers and providing recommendations based on best practices.

It also coordinates the High-Cost Cities Housing Forum, a peer-to-peer venue for local housing commissioners and policymakers from nine of the most expensive cities in the United States to discuss housing policy and exchange program ideas.

Not Reinventing the Wheel
One of the lessons nonprofit and advocacy organizations, like NLIHC and Enterprise, are learning is, as Lindstrom puts it, “Not to reinvent the wheel by conducting identical efforts and duplicate common research projects.”

Or trying to redefine already defined issues. “It’s really a challenge with this administration,” Arabo declares. “Some people [on Capitol Hill and in the federal agencies] are making the assumption that we haven’t figured it out and are looking for new solutions. Health, productivity in the workforce, education – I would argue we absolutely know how to solve these problems. We just need to fund them at a level that meets the needs.”

She defines Enterprise’s policy goals as: expanding resources for affordable housing; pursuing policies that promote inclusive growth; promoting racial equity and reversing previous segregation; and protecting tenants.

Another part of not reinventing the wheel is for state and local governments to coordinate their federal advocacy efforts. Arabo says, “We’re all on the same page because we have to be. For example, developers are our partners, so they have to be at the table. We kept hearing from Congress that too many people with too many voices were coming into their offices. So, we’ve formed a really powerful coalition to speak to Congress with one voice.

“Our organization is unique in national nonprofits in that it also has a network of boots on the ground in the states, which is value-added. We can bring the perspective of syndicators and developers and also tons of local and national nonprofits and community-based organizations into a national presence with a policy team on Capitol Hill.”

She also notes, “People might think mayors and governors aren’t doing enough. But I can tell you, they’ve never been more active partners.”

“More and more, governors are acting as liaisons with congressional delegations,” Lindstrom says.

NLIHC’s State Partner Project holds monthly conference calls and/or webinars and peer-sharing updates in which one partner presents an idea, program or initiative that has been working out. Recent topics include criminalizing lockout evictions, housing ballot initiatives, statewide rent control and Airbnb webinars.

“Twice a year we convene in person to learn from one another,” Lindstrom explains. “We restrict it to state partners so that we achieve high-level conversation and good back and forth dialogue. We talk about things like how to approach HUD and state government, the best ways to take action on state policy and how to use federal resources granted to the state level. We’re also constantly building relationships with staff on the appropriating committees. The primary thrust of our program is to produce dialogue.”

“As an organization, all of our focus is on federal policy change, but to do that, we support our local partners in organizing, communication with the media, shaping the narrative, research grounded in data, policy analysis and coalition building,” Yentel enumerates.

Research Plus Stories
Evidence-based research is one of the hallmarks of NLIHC’s State Partner Project. “We do a tremendous amount of research to put in the hands of advocates,” Lindstrom says. “We keep asking, how can our numbers be best used downstream? How can our data get out into the media and all of the advocacy efforts?”

When it comes to the federal government, though, the lack of sensitivity to the actual human dimensions of inadequate housing and outright homelessness has been a recurring theme over the past three years and has led to some of the more creative approaches on the state and local level. This means going beyond the data.

“Numbers are very important to help us define the problems and pursue solutions,” Arabo says. “But stories humanize the situation. A lot of policymakers are shielded in their daily lives. We can show what’s happening on the ground.”

“We have to get out the stories of people actually affected by policies,” Lindstrom states. “This is an example of something we can only do through our State Partners program, because it puts us in a unique position to gather these stories.”

The key, it seems, is to combine the data with the individual impact to convince HUD and other federal government agencies that housing investment and subsidy represents sound fiscal logic. “There is a growing and compelling body of research into how housing is essential to every other aspect of life,” Yentel says. “It makes a huge difference whether you’re talking about education, income, personal safety or even living longer. And the benefits involve not only the residents themselves, but the entire economy when we invest in affordable housing solutions.”

She cites studies by Children’s Health Watch out of Boston and the National Education Association:

“We’re seeing kids churning in and out of housing and evictions. If we invest half of the down-the-line costs [of inadequate housing] we save money in the long term for the federal government in terms of civil rights, anti-poverty programs, anti-hunger efforts, etc. The housing community has known this intuitively. Now we have the research and data to support it. I mean, we get it: We’re not going to be able to attain our own goals without effective affordable housing.”

In November, Yentel teamed up with Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HA) to pen an op-ed for The Hill that advocates for the Hirono-sponsored Pathway to Stable and Affordable Housing for All Act and gives the facts from experience in ways that are difficult to ignore. Among their agenda items is expanding the National Housing Trust Fund to at least $3.5 billion annually. Senator Mazie Hirono and Yentel wrote:

In the long-run, the investment plan outlined in the Pathway to Stable and Affordable Housing for All Act will not only benefit our low-income neighbors that desperately need the help directly, but will also benefit our broader communities.

We know that kids who have stable homes do better in school, workers with stable housing are better able to find and keep jobs, and that housing can be a pathway out of poverty that reduces the long-term costs to communities for providing social services and criminal justice.

“Even if you only look at healthcare, savings are in the billions,” Arabo points out. “We have a very large volume of research for Medicaid savings alone. That’s why many state Medicaid programs have begun investing in housing support programs. State directors know they cannot continue to spend so much on such a small subset of the population.”

Tracking Results
Not only is there a new focus on research and data in the state and local affordable housing spheres, but also new emphasis on tracking results.

“We can and do track what we’re accomplishing locally,” Arabo says. “And we keep refining and improving upon the metrics. We know when we support a policy and it passes. We know how many dollars are being spent [as a result of our efforts], how many units are coming online and how many lives are affected.

“So many other [results] are harder to track. For example, in Denver, we have a program to let tenants know there are minimum standards they’re entitled to: ‘You have rights and we’re going to protect you until your problem is remediated.’ That’s another place where it’s important to tell individual stories.”

Mobilize and Defend
“This is a really historic time for the role of local organizations,” Arabo says. “It’s absolutely unprecedented. So many resources have to be raised and used at the state and local level that 40 years ago the federal government was providing, but that’s no longer the case.”

“The state of housing advocacy is not just a housing issue,” Yentel recaps. “I think we are stronger and more powerful than we’ve ever been because we’ve had to mobilize and defend against the current administration. We’re stronger because of the battles we’ve had to fight over the past couple of years. And because of that, we’re going to be ready when we have an administration that recognizes the importance and all of the benefits of affordable housing.”

Story Contacts:
Flora Arabo,
Joey Lindstrom,
Diane Yentel,