Getting Out the Vote

7 min read

Affordable Housing is ‘Built With Ballots,’ Advocates Say

An NH&RA virtual Member Town Hall on September 10, 2020, gathered a group of experts to discuss the most effective strategies for getting out the vote, census advocacy and engaging both candidates and elected officials. “Get Out the Vote,” widely represented by the acronym GOTV, has become a national mantra. As Our Homes, Our Votes: 2020, the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s (NLIHC) nonpartisan campaign to register, educate and mobilize low-income renters and affordable housing advocates puts it, “Because Housing Is Built With Ballots.”

Moderator Kaitlyn Snyder, NH&RA’s policy director, opened the town hall with the idea that workers shouldn’t have to choose between earning a paycheck and voting. “Time to Vote is a nonpartisan movement,” she states, “led by the business community to contribute to the culture shift needed to increase voter participation in our country’s elections.” She enumerated three key strategies for employers: making Election Day a paid company holiday; offering paid time off on Election Day; and actively promoting early voting and voting by mail.

Snyder noted that COVID-19 has presented its own set of election challenges. Aside from the fact that voting in person will be more problematic with physical distancing requirements, many of the volunteer poll workers traditionally have been seniors; the cohort most vulnerable to severe reaction from the virus.

She also emphasizes the importance of the census on public policy related to seniors and low-income families. “It affects representation, allocation of resources and tax credits.” In response to COVID-19, the 2020 Census Deadline Extensions Act, introduced by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) would extend the 2020 Census statutory reporting deadline to at least April 1, 2021.

Joseph “Joey” Lindstrom, field director for NLIHC and Our Homes, Our Votes, emphasizes the triple importance of voter registration, education and mobilization, citing the finding that from 2008 through 2018, on average, 20 percent more homeowners vote than renters, and those with annual incomes over $100,000 tend to much more often over the same period than those earning under $20,000. Within Our Homes, Our Votes, NLIHC has established the Housing Providers Council in which public housing agencies, nonprofit housing providers, for-profit organizations and tribal groups all are invited to participate. The council, with a stated goal of reaching one million subsidized rental homes, has been providing training webinars on the third Thursday of the month for most of the past year. Participants receive access to voter lists, assistance with branded templates and materials, media engagement toolkits and guidance and assistance from the NLIHC staff.

Significantly for the industry, a 2019 public opinion poll revealed that 83 percent of the public agrees that elected officials are not paying enough attention to the cost of housing and the need for more affordable housing. In the same poll, 76 percent said they are more likely to vote for a candidate that has a detailed plan for making housing more affordable.

Lindstrom notes that nonprofits can participate in elections as long as they do so in a nonpartisan manner, don’t affiliate with political parties or candidates and don’t share resources with them. They may invite candidates to speak, but the invitation must be inclusive of all candidates running for that office. They are not permitted to tell people how to vote, but they may take stands and advocate for ballot initiatives relevant to their missions.

“We have a voter engagement plan at,” Lindstrom says.

Snyder cites as a site where visitors can click on any state for specific resources on voting. “It’s particularly helpful for those working across jurisdictions.” It also has a census component and a resource library.

Sharon Wilson Géno, executive vice president, national services and chief operation officer of Volunteers of America (VOA), with 20,000 affordable housing units in 40 states and Puerto Rico, says, “In normal election years, achieving a good turnout with seniors is not so hard. It becomes a social event. But our abilities are different this year. The message is ‘don’t do interaction,’ so social interaction is not in our toolbox this year.” Instead, VOA is concentrating on mailing pieces with complete information and instructions for voting.

“We have champions in each of our buildings keeping track of who is registered, whether mail-in ballots have been received, and how you can vote in that particular state. They explain to our residents that getting involved with the electoral process is consistent with being part of a community. We also have 3,100 employees in senior healthcare, and we’re focusing on them, too.”

“The whole staff is incredibly strapped right now. So, we’ve created a group at VOA, an internal team to provide an intense level of support; essentially a hotline for answering questions and finding out answers. [The election] is a ground game this year.”

While organizations and companies in some cities are offering large spaces where distancing is possible to local boards of elections to serve as polling places, Wilson Géno says VOA has not wanted to expose its senior residents, instead offering transportation to voting locations. “There’s a measure of creativity beyond the level of just getting ballots in,” she says. “We’re always mindful of maintaining safety measures instituted for COVID-19.”

“We’re evaluating [our] properties as polling places on a case-by-case basis for when seniors could vote in their own developments,” says Andrew Foley, associate director of development for the Jonathan Rose Companies. “We are trying to be accommodating to our residents’ choices for voting. Our resident services coordinators are doing a lot on the phone, checking on residents. And with all of the emphasis on the pandemic, everyone is eager to talk about other things, like voting and the census.”

Wilson Géno adds that VOA’s webinars and mailing pieces about voting also incorporate messaging about the census.

Megan John, senior policy analyst for the Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition (AHTCC), stresses the importance of engaging with members of Congress “to further policies important to all of us.” Under key issues for engagement, she lists three crucial pieces of legislation currently on the table:

The Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act would expand and strengthen the housing credit to provide more than 600,000 additional affordable homes over ten years.

The Moving Forward Act (House infrastructure bill) would expand and strengthen the housing credit and private activity bonds to provide more than a million additional affordable homes over the next decade.

A minimum four percent housing credit rate alone would provide more than 100,000 additional affordable homes over the same period.

“Even members of Congress who already support affordable housing legislation need to be reminded of its impact in their state or district,” John says. “For a member who hasn’t yet signed on in support, this advocacy is even more important. Engaging with constituents can be a tipping point to gain their support.”

She suggests inviting legislators to speak to local groups as a way to establish personal relationships and strengthen their support. Chances of success increase when invitees are given as big a time window as possible, and preferably on a weekend or when Congress or the state legislature is not in session. Contact can be made through the member’s constituent services representative. “You should highlight your connection to the district or state and the press the member will receive through attending,” John advises. “Then highlight the importance to their voters of key affordable housing policies. Have a Plan B if they can’t attend, such as having them record a video message. And contact NH&RA or AHTCC for assistance.”

AHTCC’s Affordable Housing Resource Center can be accessed at

Tax Credit Advisor Executive Editor Paul Connolly states, “Letters to local news organizations are still relevant and still important in 2020.” NH&RA can provide sample letters on such current topics as the housing eviction moratorium. “If the letter is published, you can publish a link on your website and send it to policymakers. It’s a good idea to put the names of the elected officials in the letter.”

“We need to think of this as a holistic civic engagement campaign,” Snyder summarizes. “And all of us are happy to be resources for NH&RA members.”