It’s been three weeks since I returned to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, this time as its President and CEO – what an exhilarating and inspiring time. I began just before NLIHC’s annual housing forum and had the chance to reconnect with many old friends and colleagues, partners with whom I’ve worked in different roles throughout the last couple of decades. I also had the opportunity to introduce myself to many new partners, and to share with all forum attendees my vision for NLIHC’s work moving forward. For those of you who were not able to attend this year’s forum, I’ve included below an adapted version of my introductory speech. Please take a look and let me know what you think - reach out with feedback, ideas and insights. I welcome your thoughts as I continue to settle into my new role. It’s great to be back at NLIHC!
Thank you for such a warm welcome, and Sheila, congratulations on your remarkable achievements. In one of the most difficult political and economic environments in recent memory, Sheila’s unwavering leadership led to the creation of the National Housing Trust Fund - a new and permanent source of housing dollars targeted to America’s lowest income families. This critical program will have a significant impact on the lives of low income people throughout the country for decades to come.
And while Sheila’s legacy is certainly about the affordable housing she’s helped to create or preserve, it’s also about the generation of advocates she’s inspired and mentored over the years. I should know -I’m lucky enough to be one of them.
I’m thrilled to be here today, to introduce myself to you all and to talk about all that I believe we can continue to achieve together.
“The ache for home lives in all of us. That safe place where we can go as we are, and not be questioned.” – Maya Angelou.
Home is the foundation for all of our individual and collective success.
When I first set out from home after college, determined to make the world a better place, I landed in a tiny village in central Africa. As a community development Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, I saw both the deepest poverty and the greatest resilience imaginable. And I learned that, no matter how humble the structure, the safety and security of a home made learning, healing and growing possible.
Three years later I was back in the US and worked on a national research study that set out to examine the effects of welfare reform on poor women. I interviewed the women in their San Antonio homes each month, where they told me about their struggles to make ends meet.
The difference that affordable housing made in their lives was clear. Those without it often left medical bills unpaid so that they could buy diapers. Their electricity was shut off so that they could fix their car to get to work. These women and their families lived in constant fear of being evicted - and often they were – because even after all of the trade- offs, they still couldn’t get ahead, stay ahead and pay their rent.
With this deep understanding of the importance of home, and with my degree in social work in hand, I started working to change affordable housing policy. This was back in 2001, when I was working as a housing policy coordinator at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. That’s when I first joined the National Housing Trust Fund campaign and began looking to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and to Sheila Crowley’s leadership, as a guide.
Several years later I moved down to Washington, DC to work for NLIHC. I learned a tremendous amount from Sheila - about perseverance, tenacity, fearlessness and determined focus. After several years I moved on to other organizations, working on different segments of affordable housing, remaining focused on changing public policy to better serve the housing needs of our country’s lowest income families.
And throughout it all, Sheila has been for me - as she has for so many of us here today – a mentor, an advisor, a compass for our conscience. So I want to pause for just a moment to personally thank Sheila for all that she’s given and all that she’s done. For being such a tireless and effective advocate for low-income people and communities across the country. And for being, to me, such an important role model and an inspiration. Thank you Sheila.
It’s an incredible honor to be following in Sheila’s footsteps as President and CEO of NLIHC, especially during such a pivotal and crucial time. The problems before us are daunting. Stagnant incomes. Skyrocketing rents. Increased concentrations of poverty. Rising inequality – of wealth, income, and access to opportunity.
Communities from Ferguson to Flint highlight the decades of federal, state and local housing and transportation policies that have created and sustain communities of deep poverty, geographically cut off from opportunity.
Groundbreaking research from Raj Chetty confirms that where you live — the city, the neighborhood, the block, even the street — has a profound effect on the opportunities you get in life. In fact, of all the determinants that impact our ability to climb up the economic ladder, none is more important than home, place, the communities in which we are raised.
And every year matters. Every year a child spends in a high-poverty neighborhood cements lifelong detrimental impacts – affecting everything from educational attainment, to earnings, to life expectancy.
Today 14 million people live in such high poverty communities, and the numbers are rising – almost doubling since the year 2000. The changes are felt most profoundly within communities of color. One in four poor black families, and one in seven poor Latino families live in concentrated poverty. That’s compared to one in thirteen poor white families.
The research makes indisputable what we as housers have long known: in order to create and expand opportunity for the lowest income people we have to start with home.
And they must be decent, safe and affordable homes. But wages have declined while rents have skyrocketed. Nearly eleven million families in the United States are paying more than half their income towards their rent and hundreds of thousands more have no homes at all.
The problem is especially acute for the lowest income people – the vast majority of extremely low income renters pay at least half their income towards their rent, and many pay much more – 70%, 80%, even 90% of their income each month to have a home.
Despite the obvious need, affordable housing is a rarity. Most families that are eligible for and in need of subsidized housing don’t receive it. Instead, they stand in line - to be added to years long waiting lists or entered into a housing lottery while they are left to fend for themselves in the private market. The need continues to grow, as resources shrink.
The work of the National Low Income Housing Coalition has never been more important; our cause has never been more urgent. The problems that need solving are daunting. They can feel, at times, almost overwhelming.
But when I look at both the problems we face, and the people in this room and beyond – the people who make up the National Low Income Housing Coalition; when I consider the lessons of our past and the opportunities in our future, I feel tremendous hope and possibility. This country has tackled massive, seemingly intractable housing problems before.
We created a series of policies and programs to eliminate the blighted slums of centuries ago, drastically improving the physical conditions in which most low-income people lived. We created effective systems for financing, building and maintaining quality rental housing that’s affordable to low-income people, driven by programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Through innovations like Housing Choice Vouchers and supportive housing, we have ensured that some of the most vulnerable people in our communities have access to quality, affordable housing and the services they need to thrive. And communities across the country are ending homelessness among veterans.
To continue making progress towards solving today’s systemic problems of concentrated poverty and deep housing insecurity, we must continue working towards bold, systemic solutions. Thankfully, the National Low Income Housing Coalition knows a little something about thinking big. The limitless vision, tenacity and perseverance of NLIHC’s leadership, staff, members, funders and partners created the National Housing Trust Fund. This was the impossible made possible. Most people thought it only a pipe dream. Yet here we are today, working towards it successful implementation, creating new homes for the lowest income people.
Despite this tremendous achievement, there is so much more to do. We need stay vigilant – protecting the Trust Fund from attempts to defund or eliminate it. And our next great challenge is to drive significant resources to expand the Trust Fund, to meet the outstanding demand, and fill the gap, at last.
The good news is that more resources doesn’t necessarily mean spending more. It requires that we spend more effectively. Each year, we spend about $200 billion to help Americans buy and rent their homes. The bulk of those resources, a full three quarters, go to subsidize the homes of higher-income households, most of whom would be stably housed without the government’s support.
Just twenty-five percent of federal housing subsidies go to low income renters, those with the clearest and greatest need. Consider this: each year we spend more to subsidize the homes of the richest five million families than we do to assist the poorest 20 million households combined.
Ending housing poverty requires that we direct limited resources to the lowest income families in need. It is time to rebalance housing policy.
Reforming the Mortgage Interest Deduction was once considered a “third rail” – touch it at your peril. But we are seeing smart reforms to the Mortgage Interest Deduction being embraced by both Democrats and Republicans; in part because its cost is so high and its shortcomings are so glaring.
With tax reform again possible in the next Congress, we are prepared to advocate for the solutions needed to rebalance housing policy. Simple changes to the MID would result in real benefits – for both low income renters and homeowners.
The United for Homes proposal to transform the MID into a single nonrefundable capped credit worth a percentage of annual interest would both increase the benefit to lower-income homeowners and would result in significant savings: $230 billion over the next decade, or $23 billion each year. Just imagine if we could instead put those dollars to work through the National Housing Trust Fund, building new homes for extremely low income people.
As we work to protect and expand funding for the Trust Fund –through MID reform, GSE reform, even criminal justice reform - we will also work to preserve, strengthen, improve and expand other critical affordable housing programs like Housing Choice Vouchers, supportive housing, housing for the elderly, housing for the disabled, the HOME program, and the Housing Credit. We will continue working to protect and improve public housing throughout the country. We’ll work to ensure that affordable housing is available to citizens reentering their communities after serving time in jails and prisons.
We’ll work towards a balanced approach to fair housing supporting comprehensive investment needed in low income communities, preservation of existing affordable housing and new affordable housing in high opportunity neighborhoods – so that low income families can choose to live in the communities that best suit their families’ needs. Real choice requires us to work towards ensuring that every community is one of opportunity.
We’ll continue working to elevate the rental housing crisis within the Presidential campaign, and we’ll be prepared to work closely with the transition team of whomever is elected, to offer concrete solutions and urge action early in the next Administration.
Progress is inevitable.
Ensuring that people are affordably housed is the right thing to do – it greatly benefits those individual families and their communities. It equally benefits the country’s economy and its future.
Just last month, my former colleagues at Enterprise Community Partners published a study showing that Medicaid costs fell twelve percent after people moved into affordable housing, proving definitively that affordable housing drives down costs to the health-care system.
Stable, affordable homes improves kids’ educational outcomes. It improves health outcomes. It acts, as Dr. Megan Sandel, a pediatrician at Children’s Health Watch says, as a ‘vaccine’ – protecting children against multiple social ills.
Being affordably housed means more money to invest in our futures. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, when we are affordably housed we can spend nearly five as much on health care, a third more on food, and twice as much on retirement savings. We can pay down debt, save to pay for college or to buy a home.
And being affordably housed allows seniors to age in place, improving mental and physical health, quality of life, independence – and further drives down health care costs.
So, to be successful, to achieve the changes necessary, we must broaden our coalition – to go beyond the housing and community development sector. Because if you care about poverty, economic mobility, inequality; if you care about health care, education, transportation, nutrition; If you care about local economies, creating jobs -then the solutions start with home.
We will continue engaging and listening to the people most impacted by these issues – low income families living in subsidized housing, low income families in need – as we craft and advance new solutions. And we will harness the incredible power and potential of social media – to engage new partners, across generations and throughout communities, to propel a movement to end housing poverty once and for all.
In the coming months and years, I look forward to working with the dedicated staff at the coalition, our outstanding board, and each of you here today. To build off of the tremendous achievements of Sheila and the Coalition and to continue expanding affordable housing resources for the poorest in our country.
As I tell my young sons often, when we read their favorite bedtime story, “Peace is everyone having a home.” I believe we can reach this goal together. Bold, systemic change will be achieved by all of us, here in this room. We know how to do this; we’ve done it before. Now it’s time to get out there and do it again – and I look forward to it.