Hundreds of Advocates Explore Solutions to Homelessness and Housing Poverty at Policy Forum

More than 300 affordable housing advocates and providers, researchers, low income residents, and policy makers attended the NLIHC 2017 Housing Policy Forum: Advancing Solutions in a Changing Landscape in Washington, DC on April 3-5 to explore the challenges and solutions to homelessness and housing poverty in the U.S. A diverse array of NLIHC members and partners engaged with policy makers, experts and one another, learned about NLIHC’s policy priorities, and met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to share their concerns and ask for their support. HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson and U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (R-CA) provided two of the keynote addresses during the Forum.

Rep. Maxine Waters and Dr. Ben Carson

The forum kicked off with a special session for approximately 80 low income residents titled “The Moment Is Now!”  Willie J.R. Fleming from the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and José R. Alvarez from the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) began with a dynamic presentation on how collective action can break down barriers to addressing community challenges.  Mr. Fleming stressed the importance of public housing residents working collaboratively with housing authorities. “Through collaborative action, we have the power to use policy as a tool for organizing,” he said. Mr. Alvarez shared examples of how CHA and public housing residents partnered to expand employment opportunities for residents through Section 3. Dushaw Hockett from Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity facilitated an interactive session on how residents could strengthen their relationship-building skills. “What we have in so many communities is a belief gap,” Mr. Hockett said. “Trust has been violated so many times between the housing authority and residents—and even between residents and residents—that folks don’t believe it’s possible to create a different circumstance than what they have. So much of the work we have to do is . . . about helping people believe again.”

The opening plenary panel of the forum featured four advocates from around the country who discussed their recent successful campaigns to expand funding for affordable housing and shared recommendations for attendees engaged in similar efforts. Michael Anderson from the Center for Community Change’s Housing Trust Fund Project highlighted recent victories of state and local housing trust fund campaigns, including Arizona’s commitment to nearly double their trust fund investments. Mr. Anderson also shared that housing trust fund initiatives are gaining momentum in rural states like South Dakota. Phyllis Chamberlain of Housing Alliance Pennsylvania shared her organization’s successes engaging legislative allies across the political spectrum to increase affordable housing funding. She encouraged attendees to consider not just the content of their arguments but also who is presenting that information to legislators. Fredricka Robinson of East Bay Housing Organizations discussed her role as a resident leader on community education efforts in support of Alameda County’s infrastructure financing measure and on Oakland’s measure to expanded renters’ rights related to rent increases; voters passed both ballot measures overwhelmingly in November 2016. Greg Payne of Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, and an NLIHC board member, closed the session by describing the various obstacles Maine advocates overcame in gaining overwhelming support for a statewide bonding initiative to increase affordable housing for seniors. 

A session titled “Getting the Message Across: Effective Communications” highlighted key strategies advocates can use to position affordable housing as a critical issue in their communities. Ali Solis from Make Room spoke about the inherent ideological and experiential biases that influence the way people perceive affordable housing. Ms. Solis shared data on the numbers of women, children, millennials, seniors, and veterans experiencing housing insecurity. In telling the story, she said, “we have to remember the people behind the numbers.”  Amy Clark from the National Housing Conference explored how advocates can advance a broader public conversation. "We can't rely solely on resident stories in affordable housing messages,” she said. “We have to talk about systems and structures.” Tiffany Manuel from Enterprise Community Partners said that “too many people don’t have a fair shot at success in life because of where they live, but it’s hard to build the public will to solve for this problem.” Ms. Manuel closed out the session by sharing common messaging pitfalls and suggestions on what advocates can do differently to engage key audiences. “In order to reach a broader audience, people need to see themselves inside of the story,” she said.

Julie Fernandez, Open Society Foundation Advocacy Director for Voting Rights and Democracy, spoke on Sunday afternoon about the “current moment” in the U.S. and its implications for civil and human rights in our country. Ms. Fernandez spoke forcefully about the legacy and ongoing issues of racial discrimination and segregation in America, and she addressed current threats to the 1968 Fair Housing Act requirement to affirmatively further fair housing. She also emphasized the critical importance of combating voter suppression targeted at racial and ethnic minorities and of aggressive voter registration, education, and mobilization. “The one thing that we all have that is exactly the same as everyone else, the one thing that makes us all equal is that we all have one vote.” Ms. Fernandez urged advocates to do all they can to protect that right and encourage low income citizens to use it.

NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel opened the second day of the forum with an overview of the current state of affordable housing, political threats and opportunities, and solutions. Ms. Yentel covered topics ranging from the threat of massive budget cuts not seen since the Reagan administration to opportunities for bipartisan policy solutions through tax and housing finance reform. Ms. Yentel concluded her remarks on a note of optimism, reminding advocates: “Our commitment to ending homelessness and housing poverty is unwavering. And knowing that there are tens of thousands of us across the country uniting behind this cause, and that our numbers are ever growing, makes me confident we will prevail in the end.”

In a session titled “Rebalancing Federal Housing Policy,” panelists discussed the need to reprioritize federal spending on housing by reforming the mortgage interest deduction (MID) – a $70 billion tax break that primarily benefits higher income households – and reinvesting the significant savings into providing affordable rental homes for people with the greatest needs. NLIHC Director of Public Policy Sarah Mickelson began the conversation by playing a new United for Homes (UFH) campaign video on the need to reform MID and invest in affordable housing. Carol Wayman, legislative director for Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), discussed Mr. Ellison’s “Common Sense Housing Investment Act” and how it would help address homelessness and housing poverty. She urged Congress to keep dollars from housing-related tax reform in affordable housing.  David Newville from CFED and Agatha So from the National Council of La Raza spoke about how the MID reinforces the racial wealth gap and the need to reform the tax deduction into a credit to ensure that more low and moderate income minority homebuyers receive a tax break. Sharon Cornu from the Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California shared an update on a broad campaign effort, which includes strong resident engagement, to reform California’s MID and reinvest the savings into affordable housing solutions. Visit the UFH campaign website and view the new UHF video at:

A panel of experts shared their insights about “public housing in a changing landscape.” Susan Popkin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and author of No Simple Solutions: Transforming Public Housing in Chicago, shared lessons learned from Chicago’s Plan for Transformation and the importance of “whole-family” services and supports to ensure children can thrive in their new homes, neighborhoods, and schools after relocation. David Pristin from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) discussed the current $17 billion of capital needs in NYCHA properties, the agency’s efforts to address those needs given insufficient federal funding, and the organization’s extensive resident engagement efforts. Shauna Sorrells from the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County, MD discussed her agency’s public housing/housing finance agency model and emphasized that public housing converted to project-based rental assistance under the Rental Assistance Demonstration will continue to require ongoing public subsidy. Finally, Martha Weatherspoon, president of the Lincoln Home Resident Council in Clarksville, TN and an NLIHC board member, spoke about how important it is for residents to communicate with policy makers about the importance of public housing. With public housing often getting a “bad rap” and with President Donald Trump’s budget threatening big funding cuts to HUD and public housing, she said that residents must communicate persuasively that public housing be protected. “Find your legislators and start calling,” Ms. Weatherspoon said. “This is your home.  Are you going to fight for it?  Set a fire under yourself!”

During a session on long-term rental housing assistance, Dr. Marybeth Shinn from Vanderbilt University summarized the results of the Family Options Study, which found that long-term rental housing assistance improved housing stability, reduced domestic violence and psychological distress, improved food security, and decreased child behavioral problems more than the “usual care” that communities typically provide.  Daisy Franklin, an NLIHC board member and vice president of Connecticut’s Publicly-Assisted Housing Residents Network, discussed concerns about transportation and child care needs for assisted households, especially in light of proposals to impose work requirements and time limits. Ms. Franklin questioned the logic of time limits on assistance when many non-elderly assistance recipients are already working and have limited access to higher wage opportunities. Barbara Sard from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explained CBPP’s proposed renters’ tax credit, which would allow a property owner to claim a credit to cover the gap between 30% of an eligible extremely low income tenant’s income and their rent. Aaron Gornstein from Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) described POAH’s Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program. POAH is the first private owner of Section 8 assisted properties to implement an FSS program, which allows participating households to avoid rent increases that usually occur because of earnings growth as long as they save a portion of their increased earnings in special escrow accounts to be used for long-term financial goals like education or homeownership.

Another panel explored Housing Trust Fund (HTF) implementation best practices. Virginia Sardone from HUD said a majority of the initial Allocation Plans submitted to HUD for approval were inadequately detailed, requiring HUD to return them unapproved for more information. Ms. Sardone said that many states did not clearly articulate their “priority factors” for HTF project approvals, and she acknowledged that HUD’s interim rule and other guidance inadvertently encouraged an overreliance on project-based rental assistance.  Ayana Gonzalez from the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development described Massachusetts’s plan to use its HTF allocation on a pilot program for which state funds are no longer available - specifically for service-enriched housing, setting aside state vouchers that come with $1,500 per year for services. The state will augment the HTF with at least $5 million in state bonds. Chip Halbach from the Minnesota Housing Partnership described an HTF project in St. Peter, MN that will provide 30 housing units enhanced with supportive services for formerly incarcerated individuals at high risk of homelessness who have mental health and/or substance abuse challenges. Jim Yates from the Technical Assistance Collaborative (TAC) talked about TAC’s deeper analysis of draft HTF Allocation Plans that seemed to have unique provisions. He noted that Florida encouraged projects targeted to households with incomes at or near the Supplemental Security Income level, providing homes in a mixed-income setting for households with special needs who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. New Jersey targeted its HTF funds to special needs housing within mix-income developments, with the HTF units serving formerly incarcerated individuals. 

Congressional staff from key offices and committees discussed what is ahead for Congress this year related to the budget, tax reform, housing finance reform, anti-poverty issues, infrastructure, and more.  Artie Mandel, senior policy advisor with Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), spoke about the Senator’s efforts to expand the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) in a comprehensive LIHTC reform bill and the ways the legislation would help address the growing homelessness crisis in Washington and other states. He urged advocates to ask their Senators to cosponsor the “Housing Credit Improvement Act.” Jason Woolwine, who works for Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-ME) on the Appropriations Committee, spoke about the threat of significant funding cuts to affordable housing investments at HUD. He warned that even though the president’s budget request for FY18 is likely dead-on-arrival, the House and Senate spending bills may be forced to include deep cuts to HUD programs unless Congress lifts the low spending caps required by law.  Beth Cooper from the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and Clinton Jones III and Theresa Dumais from the House Committee on Financial Services spoke about opportunities to expand the national Housing Trust Fund through housing finance reform, an infrastructure spending bill, and stand-alone legislation. The three also discussed their divergent views on how best to improve federal housing programs, including the proposal to add work requirements and time limits to housing assistance.

The final panel of the forum focused on “building an expansive housing movement” to include other advocates for social change, like those in health, education, child welfare, homelessness, and criminal justice. Peggy Bailey from the Center for Budget and Policy Policies spoke about the intersection of affordable housing and health outcomes and about how to engage healthcare advocates to mobilize for affordable housing. Harry Lawson, Jr., of the National Education Association discussed the challenges teachers face in the classroom with their students experiencing homelessness and housing instability and noted that in a number of cities teachers and other school officials are beginning to raise the issue of affordable housing to local policy makers. Richard Hooks Wayman of Children’s Defense Fund noted that his organization, long focused on children’s health, has come to realize they must also address affordable housing because it is so central to child development and wellbeing. Nan Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness highlighted the need for all advocates to think of homelessness first as a problem of affordable housing scarcity. And Margaret diZerega of the Vera Institute of Justice emphasized the critical importance of affordable housing for justice-involved individuals returning to their communities after incarceration. All panelists emphasized the importance of working together on policy solutions that unite advocates to amplify the call to address the affordable housing scarcity in our country and talked about their joint discussions to plan a national multi-sector campaign to end homelessness and housing poverty once and for all.

HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson Assures Forum Participants “Nobody’s Going to Be Thrown Out on the Street” 

Dr. Ben CarsonHUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson assured housing advocates during a keynote address at the forum that “nobody’s going to be thrown out on the street” under his watch. The comment was in response to advocates’ concerns about President Trump’s budget proposal to slash HUD funding by 13%, or $6.2 billion compared to FY16 levels.  Dr. Carson added, “I know people are very, very concerned about the new budget numbers that have been put out there and think it’s a crisis and the end of the world, but it actually is not because the part that people are not hearing, even though I have said it several times, is that this administration considers housing a significant part of infrastructure in our country and, as such, the infrastructure bill that’s being worked on has a significant inclusion of housing in it.” While NLIHC supports the inclusion of funding for affordable housing in infrastructure legislation, a onetime infusion of resources cannot replace funding provided through annual appropriations. As Diane Yentel said in her remarks earlier in the day, anticipating this defense from Secretary Carson, “vague promises to replace funding through a one-time spending boost in an infrastructure bill that may never happen (is unacceptable). Instead, we must fully fund all HUD and USDA programs through spending bills, and increase investments in the national HTF and public housing capital repairs through an infrastructure bill.”

Dr. Carson discussed the importance of home during his own upbringing and reflected on the many low income patients he treated as a physician in Baltimore and the connection between housing and positive health outcomes. He also talked about how the U.S. affordable housing shortage is an untenable situation and is an area where the federal government should increasingly partner with the private sector and the faith community. “Success is not how many people we can have in public housing,” Dr. Carson said. “It is how many people we can get out of it and how many people we can have become a strong and vibrant part of our society.” He discussed the need to better enforce Section 3, which requires recipients of HUD housing and community development funding to provide “to the greatest extent feasible” job training, employment, and contracting opportunities for low income residents and eligible businesses.

Representative Waters Announces “Ending Homelessness Act of 2017” and Urges Advocates to Resist Administration’s Efforts to Gut HUD Funding  

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA)U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) gave a rousing keynote address at the forum dinner on Monday, April 3. Ms. Waters strongly criticized the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to HUD and encouraged advocates to do all they can to prevent such cuts. “We must be organized to fight for the least of us,” she said.

Ms. Waters also announced she would reintroduce legislation to provide more than $13 billion of new funding over five years for homelessness prevention, homeless services, affordable housing construction, and rental assistance. Ms. Waters said that her “Ending Homelessness Act of 2017” includes additional money for McKinney-Vento homeless assistance grants for new permanent supportive housing; Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers to help homeless families, youth, and individuals find stable housing; and outreach to ensure homeless people are connected to the services they need. The bill also would increase annual mandatory spending for the national Housing Trust Fund and would repeal the sunset date for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). (See related article about Ms. Waters’s “Ending Homelessness Act of 2017” in this Memo to Members.)

“Are you up for this fight?” Ms. Waters asked the crowd at the end of her remarks to a rising chorus of applause. “If you care about people, if you love people, if you want to do the best things by our young people, you’ve got to make sure you fight for the resources to make it happen. . . . I’m up for this fight!”