Homes for All Minnesota hosted a forum in September for the two candidates running for lieutenant governor in Minnesota. The forum, Foundation for our Future: Housing as an Economic Driver, provided each candidate with an opportunity to discuss her vision for affordable housing in the state. With participation from both major parties’ candidates, a full room, and a widely-viewed live stream, the forum added significant momentum to the affordable housing conversation ahead of the November 2018 election.
Homes for All Minnesota is a statewide coalition of more than 200 organizations representing a variety of affordable housing stakeholders, including nonprofits, developers, direct service providers, faith communities, philanthropic organizations, and local governments. The coalition works to amplify a core message of addressing the full continuum of affordable housing needs through focused advocacy efforts with state policymakers and increasing public awareness.
In recent years, Homes for All Minnesota successfully elevated the profile of affordable housing in all regions of the state, resulting in an additional $400 million to build and preserve affordable housing since 2012. There is a growing interest to work on this issue among lawmakers from both parties, as every Minnesota country is facing growing housing needs. Given the depth of the need for more affordable housing and complexity of housing issues, however, more engagement and education is needed.
While candidates often mention housing as an important issue, it is often pushed aside for other competing priorities. Homes for All Minnesota strives to clearly communicate to state-level candidates and the next governor that affordable housing must be viewed as a top priority, comparable to roads, bridges, education, and healthcare. Minnesota can no longer wait to act; the housing affordability crisis is growing, and Minnesotans statewide are experiencing its impact.
The timing was ripe to build momentum on housing issues with the gubernatorial race underway and the entire Minnesota House of Representatives up for re-election. Homes for All Minnesota decided that a gubernatorial forum would be the perfect opportunity to provide the two campaigns with a platform to have a conversation about affordable housing, get commitments from the campaigns to elevate affordable housing as an issue, and get them on the record supporting policy solutions.
Homes for All Minnesota spent significant time and energy to make the event a success. More than 200 people attended the forum in Duluth, and many more from across the state tuned in to watch through the live stream. Both candidates for lieutenant governor, Donna Bergstrom (GOP) and Peggy Flanagan (DFL), participated in the event, and the Duluth Mayor Emily Larson provided opening remarks.
Homes for All Minnesota shared its thoughts on what made the forum successful:
Homes for All used existing resources and strategic partners wisely: The coalition has policy, communications, and outreach teams in place to help lead the coalition’s work throughout the year, and the forum planning committee was comprised of members from each of those committees as well as new partners. Sponsorships were secured that allowed the coalition to purchase posters and buttons for the forum that can be reused for future events. Additionally, there were some unused funds which will help support advocacy efforts at the State Capitol in 2019, especially for compensating (for the first time) affordable housing residents and people with lived experiences when they are asked to testify and share their stories.
The moment was right: The growing need for affordable housing across the state has put pressure on state lawmakers, the business community, and local governments to engage in conversations about solutions. Housing has become an important issue for candidates across the state. Framing the forum around housing as an economic driver—and focusing on a range of options and solutions—provided partners and candidates the opportunity to build on the existing momentum and have a constructive conversation.
It was a win-win for the candidates and respective gubernatorial campaigns: By participating in a forum—and not a debate—candidates were able to showcase their respective platforms and solutions for affordable housing. The forum was intentionally designed to be a thoughtful conversation with each candidate about the affordable housing challenges in Minnesota and how to address them. Homes for All knows the solutions must have bipartisan support, and the forum created an excellent opportunity to highlight the bipartisan nature of affordable housing.
The community helped to shape the forum: When registration for the event went live, participants were offered the opportunity to submit questions in advance to help influence what topics would be discussed. More than 50 questions were submitted from all over the state, including from people who signed up to view the live stream. These questions helped organizers understand their communities’ priorities and what was important to participants. They gave Homes for All key information from which to develop the forum questions and to prepare candidates for a thoughtful conversation. Additionally, Homes for All held a Tweetchat a week prior to the forum to rally support and spread the word.
Preparation and planning were key: Homes for All began preparations for the forum months in advance. The communications team developed a strong media plan, and the policy team developed core messages and questions for candidates. Very little was left to chance. While planning for the forum required a significant amount of work, it paid off. The campaigns were able to engage with Homes for All Minnesota in a meaningful dialogue in advance so that the candidates were prepared. The partner organization networks were also well prepared to attend the forum or the live stream.
If your state is interested in engaging with candidates in a similar fashion, Homes for All Minnesota recommends using the existing networks and resources you already have in your state. Hosting such an event may seem like a lot of time and effort, but the payoff is worth the investment! Follow Homes for All Minnesota on Twitter and Facebook for more inspiration.