Working with Your State Government

8 min read

How to Get On the Policy Frontlines  

In case you haven’t already noticed, this issue of Tax Credit Advisor clearly demonstrates that the 50 states and the District of Columbia are at the vanguard of developing innovative housing solutions. As developers, providers and investors of affordable housing, our readers should play an active role in developing these innovative solutions. Here are some ways that organizations can position themselves on the policy frontlines:

In my freshman year “Introduction to Public Administration and Policy” class, the professor was famous for repeatedly telling students, “You cannot separate the politics from the policy.” It is a lesson I have had to remind myself of at times when seemingly apolitical government officials make decisions that are driven by political rationales.

This truism applies to federal, state and local governments. The governor’s office, the legislature and the housing finance agency (HFA) are the rough state parallels to the White House, Congress and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Unlike HUD, each HFA has its own state-level charter that directs its mission, functions and operations. A few HFA executive directors are political appointments by the governor that change with the outcome of elections, but most are independent agencies that operate under the direction of a board of directors appointed by each state’s governor.

The ability of governors to appoint organizational leadership and oversee the executive functions of a state means that a governor’s priorities will in some way shape, form or impact the priorities of the HFA; after all, “you cannot separate the politics from the policy.” These priorities may manifest themselves through new or scrapped initiatives, funding changes, altered Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP) scoring, more resources for multifamily compared to single-family housing, etc.

Similarly, legislators play a key role in the governing process: controlling the purse strings, approving appointments and enacting their own laws. Any legislative session will have a competing agenda setting between a governor and legislature, negotiations and compromising on related and unrelated topics and priority shifting. An individual lawmaker can shift an agenda or amend a bill, and the policy horse-trading that takes place is often driven by their home district needs; after all, “you cannot separate the politics from the policy.”

Before the Election
An often-overlooked time for advocacy is election season. Governors and legislators, almost always, start as candidates and the campaigning time period can yield some of the most fruitful opportunities to advocate, influence and help advise the eventual governor’s and lawmaker’s priorities.

  • Send a letter introducing your organization to all of the campaigns and offer your organization as a subject matter resource. Explain your mission, impact in the community and political priorities.
  • Collaborate and partner with other housing organizations to host a housing town hall among the candidates.
  • Develop and send a candidate Q&A to all of the campaigns, inviting them to share their stances of key housing issues.

The last two bullet points will put the campaign on notice that housing is a priority and urge them to create a housing plan, if they have not done so already. Once you have established your organization as a subject matter expert, you can work with the campaign staff to develop the candidate’s housing agenda.

Research the candidates’ connection to housing, as well as those of the people close to them and the campaign. Draw parallels and connections to their community activity, volunteering, donations, as well as past public priorities and accomplishments. Take, for example, a member of Congress who viewed HUD funding in a different light when they understood the importance of HUD funding to support youth homeless initiatives that their wife volunteered with and championed.

It would be remiss to not touch upon the importance of campaign contributions. Money can buy influence and face-time with candidates. Consider making personal contributions to candidates and hosting or attending fundraising events.

Your involvement and activity should not end with an election. Organizations that are able to succeed in getting (and maintaining) a seat at the policy table work year-round to build their reputation as a housing subject matter expert, knowledgeable industry participant and trusted source of advice for future state-led innovations.

Post-Election Follow-Up
After the election, make public official involvement a priority in publicity and press activity. Invite state officials to groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings, etc. Highlighting the impact of elected officials’ activities and sharing the tangible manifestation of their priorities is a great buy-in mechanism for future efforts.

Often times, elected officials will send a member of their staff in their stead, both for representation and to do some reconnaissance on your organization before greater commitments in the future. Do not despair when an elected official declines and sends their staff; rather, view it as an opportunity to build a relationship with a key advocate that can vouch for your organization in the future. The chief of staff and the staff member(s) responsible for housing policy are the best points of contact for invitations and policy matters. The scheduler and executive assistants also hold significant sway in an office’s operation and should not be overlooked. Build upon these interactions with staff members; offer insight and industry knowledge and be eager to participate in agenda and priority setting.

In addition to building a rapport with elected officials, it is vital that housing organizations maintain a positive relationship with the HFA. The agency members are a source of trusted information and knowledge for elected officials who often rely on the HFA’s judgment in uncertain or new situations. A poor working relationship with the agency can have downstream reputational impact.

Almost all HFAs administer federal resources, like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), Home Investment Partnerships Program and the single-family and multifamily housing portions of the state’s private activity bond volume cap, and a few administer the federal Project-Based Section 8 Rental Assistance program.

As David Smith explains in this month’s The Guru Is In (p. 6), although LIHTC is a federal funding source, it has over 50 iterations. HFAs set the rules of the game through their QAPs that are amended at varying time intervals of up to two years.

Federal law requires that HFAs hold public hearings and solicit public comments each time they update the QAP. The lead up to, and the process of updating a QAP, can be your best opportunity to effect change at the state level. Early conversations with HFA staff can put a problem on the radar to be addressed during the next QAP.

Oftentimes, the most impactful advocacy recognizes the challenges faced by the state government and work within those constraints to propose solutions. The majority of states’ constitutions prohibit deficit spending (which is in and of itself a topic for another piece). Many state HFAs feel as though they are under-resourced and under-staffed and must work to balance competing priorities. State HFAs wear many hats, have complex and evolving federal reporting and oversight requirements, and must do their own federal advocacy work. This is in addition to the yearly battle to secure adequate funding from the state legislature while implementing the political and policy priorities of the governor and lawmakers.

With that in mind, proposed solutions should build on or create efficiencies for HFAs to ease their burden; HFAs will likely be hesitant of any idea that creates more work. As an example, sorting through the myriad of public comments can be a cumbersome process that can divert limited resources. To the extent possible, partner with your peers to submit comments. Demonstrating agreement on a topic can help to push ideas over the finish line, while infighting may mean nothing gets done.

HFAs rely on each other and their boards to help make decisions. Find examples of similar proposals in other state’s QAPs for HFAs to learn from. Get to know the HFA board members: find out why they are on the board, what their own agenda is and areas of common ground. Board member buy-in is vital to advance new initiatives at the state level.

The process of state engagement should be viewed as a slow-burn, long-game. Seeds planted may not bear fruit for some time, if at all. Positioning your organization as an industry leader with the authority and wherewithal to participate in policy discussions will ultimately allow you to shape the innovations that are occurring at the state level.

NH&RA regularly convenes our members to shape state policy and we would love to work with you to drive housing production across the country.

Kaitlyn Snyder is managing director of National Housing & Rehabilitation Association.