Talking Heads: The Honorable Representative Denny Heck (D-WA)

8 min read

“Constituents are our bosses.” 

As a member of the House Financial Services Committee and the New Democrat Coalition (NDC), Representative Denny Heck (D-WA) has become one of Congress’ most vocal supporters for solving America’s affordable housing crisis.

In March 2017, the NDC—a group of 100 Democrats that promote pro-economic growth, pro-innovation, and fiscally responsible policies—formed a Housing Task Force, co-chaired by Heck, to look at the entire housing ecosystem and identify solutions to rising housing costs. A year later, in June 2018, the Housing Task Force published “America’s Housing Crisis: Missing Millions of Homes,”

which examined the perceived causes of increased housing costs and promised a follow-up report on policy recommendations that has yet to be published.

Heck, a successful entrepreneur, small business owner and politician, has represented Washington state’s 10th Congressional District—located in the western portion of the state and centered around the capital city of Olympia —since 2013.

Prior to coming to Washington, Rep. Heck was elected to five terms in the Washington House of Representatives and for a time was the Majority Leader, the second highest ranking position in that legislative body. He also served as chief of staff for Governor Booth Gardner during his second term (1989–93).

Tax Credit Advisor sat down with him to talk about his initiatives for 2019 and the steps that readers can take to promote affordable housing to their own elected leaders in Congress.

Tax Credit Advisor: We encourage our readers to meet with their elected representatives in Congress to educate  them about the lack of affordable housing. What is the most effective method of getting comments and questions before legislators’ eyes?

Denny Heck: First, I would stress that you don’t need to fly hundreds or thousands of miles—or whatever distance you are from DC—to be heard from your legislator. An easy way to start the conversation is to reach out to the district staff and request a meeting, with either staff or the Member of Congress. We employ several staff in the district whose sole job is outreach, and they are local. Whenever they aren’t at other community meetings throughout the district, they are in meetings with constituents and hearing directly from you about your ideas, concerns or requests. I would encourage everyone new to advocacy to reach out for an introductory meeting with district staff, and then continue the conversation. Stay in touch with them, invite them to your office, or lunch gatherings, or conferences in the area. They are an invaluable conduit to both the Member of Congress and the DC office. If you do happen to be in DC, reach out well in advance and ask to meet with the Member of Congress. Whenever I have a meeting on my schedule, I ask two things: 1) Is there someone from the district? and 2) What do they want to discuss with me? Those are critical pieces of information to include in your first request. If you do only have a meeting with a staff member in DC due to scheduling demands (of which there are many), treat it just as seriously as you would with the Member. We hire these aides because we trust them to conduct our meetings and be our representatives when we are unable to be present. They want to hear your story and how we can help.

TCA: What kinds of communication have the most impact on Congresspersons? Letters? Emails? Calls?  Visits? Visits in Washington or in home offices?

Heck: We treat letters, emails and calls the same – the key difference is in asking for a response to your inquiry. Make sure you request a response if you want to hear our point of view on what information you’ve presented. I’m old school and I think nothing can replace a face-to-face interaction, but I recommend scheduling in advance rather than dropping in. That is the best way to get a substantive meeting that you can use as a basis for future correspondence, whether over email, phone or in person.

TCA: What advice can you give to someone who may be intimidated to meet with their representative or senator?

Heck: We recently said goodbye to a great man, the longest-serving Member of Congress in our history, Representative John Dingell. He once told me, “You have a very important job, and you’re not a very important person.” My constituents are my bosses. Without their support and help, I wouldn’t hold this very important job. So, everyone should know that you are on equal footing with your elected officials. In addition, meeting with people from back home, or when I’m back home, is one of the best parts of the job. It’s like talking to an old friend, and you’ll understand once you get through your first meeting that it’s one of the easiest things you’ll ever do.

TCA: With the Democrats now in the leadership, what changes or new initiatives are you anticipating on the Financial Services Committee?

Heck: With our new chair, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, I expect a lot more focus on affordable housing and financial consumer protection issues. Our first committee hearing was on addressing homelessness, and we will have a hearing with the credit bureaus as well. She is extremely focused and devoted to advancing bipartisan proposals; ones that will also get attention in the upper chamber where Republicans have the gavels. Chairwoman Waters gets a lot of attention surrounding the investigatory work she plans to do, but there will be plenty of legislation considered also. I know that she has a long list of priorities, and I expect a busy docket.

TCA: In addition to the lack of affordable housing, saving for retirement is another national problem. President Obama tried to introduce the CLASS Act for a national long-term care insurance program. Mark Iwry at Treasury during the last administration worked on an automatic IRA. Are there other things you think your committee can do to encourage people to save more?

Heck: The most important wealth-building tool to the average American is their home. Increasing homeownership as a way for more Americans to build equity is incredibly important to me. But the traditional ways of saving for retirement are also important, as well as making critical changes to make sure that Social Security remains solvent for generations to come. I think of housing as an ecosystem.

One major change on one rung—like an increase in the price of market-rate housing—can influence other rungs, such as a young person’s ability to afford to rent their own apartment, a senior’s ability to downsize, or preventing a family from facing homelessness. I want Congress to get better at seeing how any proposed change to housing policy might affect the entire ladder of housing opportunity, and what that does to a family’s overall finances, such as their retirement security.

TCA: Since you understand affordable housing better than most lawmakers, do your colleagues come to you when they have questions? What questions do you get asked most often either from your House colleagues or your constituents back home?

Heck: At first in this new Congress, we all focused on ending the government shutdown, which presented an opportunity to talk about housing – the largest monthly expense for most households. We saw how rent and mortgage payments placed an incredible amount of stress on government employees who weren’t receiving a paycheck, and the amount of assistance that might go unmet because of HUD being shuttered. So, no matter what the most pressing issue of the day in DC, it always comes back in some way to housing affordability and financial security.

I think especially as we see more Baby Boomers enter retirement, and move to figuring out their long-term financial needs, all proposals will be up for discussion.

TCA: What can we do as an industry to better explain the value of affordable housing to Congresspersons and to build more support for our program?

Heck: My dear friend, the late Billy Frank Jr., advocated for tribal rights and environmental justice. His advice was always, “tell your story.” I encourage everyone to be armed with the data and the statistics on why their idea or policy proposal is important, but first and foremost the task is really simple: tell us your story. Give the issue a face and a name. Explain to us what it means to you. Your request is much more memorable and meaningful when you do that.

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.