Recap of NLIHC’s 2023 Housing Policy Forum Featuring Congressional Leaders, HUD Secretary Fudge, Policy Experts, Successful Organizers, and Others

Advocates from around the country gathered in Washington, D.C., and virtually last week for NLIHC’s 2023 Housing Policy Forum. The first Forum held in person since 2019, this year’s event was hosted at the Hilton Capitol Hill Hotel on March 21-23 and featured conversations with and presentations by key leaders in Congress and the Biden administration, including HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge, Representatives Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), U.S. Department of the Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo, and Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Sandra Thompson. The Forum also featured a keynote address by sociologist Matthew Desmond, as well as a book launch for Professor Desmond’s new book, Poverty, by America, and a conversation with Ms. Shirley Sherrod, co-founder of New Communities Land Trust. The Forum offered an array of plenary panels, breakout sessions, and numerous other opportunities for advocates to engage with and learn from thought-leaders, tenant and community leaders, policy experts, researchers, and affordable housing practitioners about the fight for housing justice.

Following a series of pre-Forum sessions held on March 20 and the morning of March 21 – including a State and Tribal Partner Convening and two Tenant Leader sessions (see the additional articles in this issue of Memo for more information) – the 2023 Housing Policy Forum began with opening remarks from NLIHC Board of Directors Chair Dora Leong Gallo and NLIHC board member Loraine Brown before NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel took the stage to welcome guests to the Forum.

“It’s been a long time coming – the first time we’re gathering at NLIHC’s Housing Policy Forum in four long years,” said Diane, referring to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic prevented an in-person Forum from being held since 2019. Diane recounted the impacts of the pandemic on the struggle for affordable housing, and the extraordinary advocacy and impact that NLIHC and our partners led during the four years since we last met in person. “In these years, we experienced – and created – tremendous, momentous shifts in our work, our partnerships, and our impact,” Diane continued. “Together, we achieved $46.5 billion in rental assistance – an unprecedented level of support for low-income renters…Together, we fought for and kept in place a national moratorium on evictions.” 

Since Congress first allocated emergency rental assistance funding in December 2020, over 10 million emergency rental assistance payments have been made, keeping millions of people stably housed. Additional resources, in the form of Emergency Housing Vouchers and billions of dollars in State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, “allowed communities to permanently rehouse 140,000 people experiencing homelessness, to prevent homelessness for nearly 50,000 families, and to put in the pipeline another 40,000 deeply affordable homes.” These historic resources and policies helped not only to provide housing assistance and divert the anticipated mass wave of evictions, but also ushered in a surge of state and local policies focused on protecting tenants and leveling the playing field between renters and landlords.  

Diane also celebrated the work of NLIHC’s partners in passing tenant protections around the country. “Since 2021 alone, all of you – and partners like you from across the country – organized, advocated for, and won over 180 new state and local tenant protections,” she said. “From just-cause eviction protections, to right to counsel, to the sealing of eviction records, to protections from source-of-income discrimination, to preventing rent gouging – these 180 new tenant protections are shifting power in our housing system back to where it belongs: with renters and people experiencing homelessness.” 

Diane highlighted the White House’s recent, unprecedented actions to advance renter protections. NLIHC’s Tenant Leader Cohort has been a central force in advancing and shaping the White House’s actions on renter protections, resulting in the recently released Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights. While noting that the document does not go as far as NLIHC and the Tenant Leader Cohort would have liked, Diane observed that “this is the first time in decades – probably since the Great Depression – that the federal government has acknowledge that there could be an important federal role in preventing rent gouging. This is significant, and it would not have happened without all of you organizing, pushing, and insisting that it did.”  Diane celebrated the leadership of NLIHC’s Tenant Leader Cohort and of the over 120 impacted people attending the Forum in person.

Even with the successes of the last four years, Diane made clear that there remains more work ahead to achieve the long-term solutions needed to advance housing justice and truly end homelessness and housing poverty. “The truth is, despite our success, renters are struggling more than ever. Despite the clear success of pandemic programs in cutting eviction filing in half, and cutting child poverty in half, we don’t yet have in this country the political will to continue these astonishingly successful programs,” she said. “And, as effective and important as emergency rental assistance and temporary eviction protections were to keeping millions of people stably housed, they were a temporary patch to the gaping holes in our social safety net. They did not address the deep, structural flaws in our country’s housing system that perpetually leave millions of the lowest-income people struggling to keep a roof over their head.”  

Diane concluded her remarks with a call to action and a reminder of what advocates have achieved by working together: “On those days when our goals feel impossible, when the everyday difficulties of the work and the challenges seem insurmountable; on those days when you feel like we can’t, or we won’t, remember that we did. We achieved the unimaginable. We did the impossible. Together, we can, and we will, do it again.” 

Diane next introduced the 2023 Housing Policy Forum’s keynote speaker, Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. In addition to featuring remarks by Professor Desmond, the Forum also served to officially launch Poverty, by America. Professor Desmond’s address explored the two questions at the heart of his new book: Why is there so much poverty in America, and what can we do to eliminate it? Professor Desmond contended that progress on poverty has stalled since the 1970s, not only because of inadequacies in our welfare system but also because many people benefit from allowing poverty to remain entrenched. 

Entrenched poverty, Professor Desmond argues, is fundamentally a consequence of the exploitation of people with low incomes in the labor, housing, and financial markets. Therefore, advocates need to focus their efforts on reforming the systems that perpetuate this exploitation and enrich and empower those benefiting from it, including corporations, consumers, and middle- and higher-income Americans. As evidence for his argument, he pointed to current policies that prioritize “subsidizing affluence” (e.g., homeowner subsidies) over the alleviation of poverty. Professor Desmond concluded his address by offering three ways to combat poverty in America: (1) invest in families by rebalancing the safety net, (2) empower the poor by reining in exploitation, and (3) integrate communities to promote broad prosperity. 

Next, Dr. Bambi Hayes Brown, president and CEO of Georgia Advancing Communities Together and NLIHC board member, participated in a discussion with Ms. Shirley Sherrod, co-founder of New Communities Land Trust and president of Southwest Georgia Project. Ms. Sherrod is a national civil rights figure, advocate, and global leader in agriculture policy and its impact on Black farmers and the Black community. She and her late husband Rev. Charles Sherrod founded the New Communities Land Trust as a haven for Black farmers thrown off their land during the civil rights movement. 

In her discussion with Dr. Hayes-Brown, Ms. Sherrod talked about her experiences fighting systematic racism in Southwest Georgia during the civil rights movement. Recognizing the importance of land ownership as a vehicle for freedom for Black families, Rev. Sherrod and other civil rights leaders acquired nearly 6,000 acres of land in Lee County, Georgia, to establish and develop a community for Black families and ensure equal access to housing, to a quality education, to voting, and to farming their own land. Ms. Sherrod explained how New Communities was created during a time when White Flight and racist land and zoning policies were moving crucial resources and tax revenue to the surrounding areas of Lee County, and she shared details about the battle to hold on to their land when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) foreclosed and seized the property. After a decade-long effort that resulted in a class action lawsuit against USDA to address injustices against Black farmers and the Black community, New Communities received a settlement in 1999 and was able to use the proceeds to reclaim former plantation land and transform it into a symbol of hope and healing for the community.  

A series of breakout sessions followed. In “Homelessness is a Housing Problem: Best Practices in Housing First,” panelists discussed the underlying causes of and proven solutions to the homelessness crisis, examined how communities like Houston are successfully using Housing First to permanently house thousands of individuals, and addressed the importance of centering and amplifying the voices of people with lived experience throughout the process of designing and implementing solutions to the crisis. NLIHC Senior Housing Policy Analyst Alayna Calabro moderated the panel, which included Clayton Aldern, co-author of the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem; Ana Rausch, vice president of program operations for the Coalition for the Homeless in Houston/Harris County; and Claudine Sipili, director of lived experience and innovation at Destination: Home. The panelists explored research demonstrating that the affordable housing crisis is the primary driver of homelessness, discussed Housing First best practices, and addressed how to center lived experience as we work to change public perceptions of homelessness and advance evidence-based solutions to the crisis.

Another breakout session, “Building Tenant Protections in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) Program,” explored the connections between LIHTC and renter protections. The session was moderated by NLIHC Senior Research Analyst Dan Emmanuel and featured Glenda Krouse Matute, senior planning manager at APD Urban Planning and Management; Faruq Hussein-Bey, resident services coordinator at the National Housing Trust; and Marcos Segura, staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project. The first half of the session consisted of a discussion among the panelists about the prevalence of LIHTC tenant protections, the subjective experience of LIHTC tenancy compared to HUD-assisted and private market housing, and opportunities to strengthen LIHTC tenant protection policies at the local, state, and federal levels. The discussion broadened to include the whole audience in the second half of the session. Audience members shared their own experiences and challenges with educating LIHTC tenants and engaging them in LIHTC advocacy, and the panelists fielded a range of audience questions about ways to improve tenant protections and data collected about evictions in the LIHTC program. 

A third breakout session, “Expanding the Multisector Affordable Housing Movement,” brought together multi-sector partners from NLIHC’s Opportunity Starts at Home (OSAH) campaign, including Sarah Hassmer of the National Women’s Law Center, Sam Washington of Civil Rights Corps, Dr. Aura Obando of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Hale Crumley of Prosperity Indiana. During the session, which was moderated by OSAH Campaign Manager Chantelle Wilkinson, the panelists discussed their involvement in the campaign, the campaign’s accomplishments, the impact of housing affordability on the communities they serve, the ways the campaign has helped communities thrive, advocacy successes, lessons learned, and new resources.

Tenant Leaders Advancing Housing Justice” highlighted the work tenant leaders have conducted to advance housing justice in their communities. The session was moderated by NLIHC Housing Advocacy Organizer Sid Betancourt and included three knowledgeable and experienced leaders: Dee Ross, founder and CEO of The Ross Foundation; Mattye Berry-Evans, a member of Resident Action Project and resident services coordinator with Mercy Housing; and Taylar Nuevelle, executive director of Who Speaks for Me? The panelists shared what led them to advocacy, overviewed successful organizing tactics, discussed challenges in organizing, and inspired an audience of tenant organizers and other housing advocates to advocate and build coalitions in their local communities.

The second day of the 2023 Housing Policy Forum began with a plenary session featuring two officials from the Biden administration. In a discussion with NLIHC Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Field Organizing Sarah Saadian, Sandra Thompson, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), explained that she is keenly aware of how FHFA policies affect people and of the necessity of ensuring those policies are fair and accessible and help guarantee safe, affordable housing. Referring to the White House’s recently released Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights, Director Thompson stated that rent increases for the lowest-income renters have been “egregious” and that consequently FHFA is seeking opportunities to adopt tenant protections, including policies that limit egregious rent increases at properties financed with loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In addition to receiving input from industry stakeholders, such as developers and owners, Ms. Thompson stated that it is essential that FHFA hear from tenants about their perspectives regarding tenant protection policies. To that end, FHFA will conduct listening session roundtables involving tenants, as well as workshops and webinars. FHFA will also issue a Request for Information (RFI) encouraging members of the public to suggest ideas for tenant protections.

Next, NLIHC board member Moises Loza interviewed U.S. Department of the Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo about lessons learned from ERA program implementation and ways to increase affordable housing supply for those most in need. Deputy Secretary Adeyemo noted that implementation of program flexibilities and partnerships with advocates and impacted communities were key to turning ERA programs around. More than 10.8 million ERA payments have been made to households since the passage of the “American Rescue Plan Act.” The Deputy Secretary noted that ERA provided opportunities for people to stay in their homes but that rents are now increasing faster than incomes, making access to affordable housing more important than ever. Deputy Secretary Adeyemo concluded the conversation by observing that accessibility needs to be part of Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) standards in the future so that affordable housing is universally available.

The morning’s plenary session was followed by four breakout sessions. In “Capitol Hill Insiders Panel,” attendees heard from key congressional staff and experts about the prospects for housing legislation in 2023 and the significant threats facing the federal budget for housing and homelessness programs. Alia Fierro, director of the Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance in the Office of the House Financial Services Committee for Ranking Member Maxine Waters (D-CA), and Beth Cooper, a professional staff member in the Office of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs for Chair Sherrod Brown (D-OH), spoke about the possibility for bipartisan housing legislation and the important role of advocacy – especially by those with lived experience – in policymaking. Neil Siefring of Hilltop Advocacy LLC shared important insights about how House Republicans are approaching negotiations around the debt ceiling, budget cuts, and housing policy. The session was moderated by NLIHC Public Policy Manager Kim Johnson.

Another session, “Racial Equity in Practice,” focused on how a transformative justice framework can be applied to dismantle structural racism, strengthen accountability practices, and address the way public infrastructure investment has been used to harm communities of color and low-wealth communities. The panel was moderated by Pascale Leone, executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York and featured Ramona Ferreyra, an advocate with Save Section 9 and the founder of Ojala Threads, and Jay Williams, the statewide program and policy coordinator and ERASE lead with Collaborative Solutions. The panelists highlighted emerging practices, programs, and initiatives that support community-driven solutions, foster institutional change, and support more equitable outcomes in public investment, and they shared tools and resources to design equitable impacts. To help ground the conversation, Ramona Ferreyra shared a brief video that provides a racialized history of public housing in the U.S. and explains how racism has led to disinvestment in public housing. 

In “Achieving Affordable Housing Solutions in Native and Rural Areas,” panelists discussed ERA implementation in Native America, shared how organizing against white supremacists in Tennessee led to fighting against utility shut offs, and discussed the local and federal need for rural housing preservation. Panelist Mel Willie testified to the strength of Native Nations, and both he and fellow panelist Dave Heisterkamp urged NLIHC’s members to humbly engage with Native Nations in their communities. Stephanie Isaacs, a panelist from Shelbyville, Tennessee city councilor, inspired attendees to organize locally for improved housing conditions, and Leslie Strauss connected the dots between rural renters and USDA’s technical assistance funding. The panel was moderated by NLIHC Housing Policy Analyst Kayla Laywell.

The Status of Evictions and Eviction Prevention Work,” a session moderated by NLIHC ERASE Senior Project Director Sarah Gallagher, focused on state and local eviction prevention programs and explored what state and local community-based organizations are doing to sustain emergency rental assistance, eviction prevention, and tenant protections. Emily Benfer, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University Law School and a visiting research collaborator at Eviction Lab, provided an update on the status of evictions and the eviction crisis. Samira Nazem, principal court management consultant at the National Center for State Courts, described the core components of successful model eviction prevention and diversion programs and provided state and local examples of how housing providers and courts can work together to build effective partnerships that prevent evictions and support housing stability for low-income renters. Michelle Mapp, an Equal Justice Works Law Fellow with the ACLU of South Carolina, talked about her work creating opportunities for lawyers and community organizers to affirmatively pursue fair housing in low-income communities impacted by decades of discrimination. The session ended with a discussion by Andrew Bradley, policy director at Prosperity Indiana, about the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition’s “inside and outside approach” to supporting permanent ERA, eviction prevention and diversion programs, and tenant protections.

The breakout sessions were followed by a plenary session on Best Practices in Organizing that celebrated the achievements of NLIHC’s 2023 Organizing Award recipients and highlighted key lessons learned from their victories. NLIHC recognized the Illinois Coalition for Fair Housing with the 2023 Statewide Organizing Award for its campaign to enact statewide source-of-income protections and recognized the Miami Workers Center with the 2023 Local Organizing Award for its campaign to establish the Miami-Dade County Tenant’s Bill of Rights. Chrishelle Palay, NLIHC board member and executive director of the HOME Coalition, officially presented the awards to the winners. Following the presentation of the awards, the plenary session featured a panel discussion with Sharon Norwood, housing justice organizer at the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance; Michael Chavarria, executive director of the HOPE Fair Housing Center; and Miami Workers Center tenant organizers Vanny Veras and Devetria Stratford. Panelists spoke of their focus on racial equity and leadership of directly impacted people, the political challenges they overcame, their tactics for coalition-building, and how their achievements will lay the groundwork for future victories in the housing justice movement.  

The afternoon session of the Forum’s second day kicked off with a plenary discussion between HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge and NLIHC board members and Tenant Cohort Leaders Zella Knight, Mindy Woods, and Loraine Brown. The panelists shared their personal stories with the Secretary and how they came to be involved with activism. Ms. Knight emphasized the legacy of pioneering Civil Rights leaders in the movement for housing justice today, proclaiming “We’re going to restore, we’re going to repair, and we’re going to reclaim the debt that we said we were going to do with our ancestors.” Panelists opened a dialogue with Secretary Fudge about their top policy priorities for the federal government, including fair housing, environmental justice, veteran homelessness, mental health services, eviction prevention, and strengthening Section 3 to expand economic opportunities for tenants. Ms. Woods emphasized the need for people with lived expertise at the decision-making table: “Every single one of us has a story, and those in the elected offices oftentimes are far removed from some of our stories. It’s not until we are able to humanize what we are going through that they actually hear us.” Mrs. Brown highlighted the importance of “strong and consistent monitoring, oversight, and enforcement” for tenant protections, and called attention to the recommendations included in the NLIHC Tenant Leader Cohort’s letter to the White House. While acknowledging that HUD has room to improve, Secretary Fudge thanked the panelists for their feedback and explained that she hopes to draw on the conversation as a springboard for further discussion. “This is the last job I’ll ever have, but I want it to be the best job I’ve ever done,” said Secretary Fudge, resolving to do everything within her power to strengthen HUD programs and meet tenants’ needs.

Following the discussion with Secretary Fudge, NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel led a plenary conversation with two long-time affordable housing champions in Congress: Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA), who serves as ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Financial Services, and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who is chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Reps. Waters and Jayapal discussed their visions for housing justice and how the movement can build the political support needed to achieve major legislative victories. Rep. Waters reminded the audience repeatedly that dramatic increases in federal resources are needed to ensure everyone has a decent place to call home, but she also acknowledged the challenges posed by the political climate. However, she also assured the audience that “the fight is always on, and I’ve got some boxing gloves.” Rep. Jayapal echoed these sentiments, declaring emphatically that “housing is a human right” and arguing that “poverty is a policy choice – a very bad policy choice…We know with resources, with the right kind of resources, with sufficient resources, and with wrap-around resources, we can begin to address this issue.”  

The afternoon continued with several more breakout sessions. “Countering the Criminalization of Homelessness” addressed the alarming rise in legislation that seeks to criminalize homelessness by jailing or fining individuals for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go. In the session, panelists addressed state and local efforts to criminalize homelessness and divert resources away from long-term solutions and explored how advocates, people with lived experience, and homeless service providers are pushing back against stigmatizing and counterproductive bills in Arizona and Missouri. NLIHC Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Field Organizing Sarah Saadian moderated the panel, which featured Lisa Glow, chief executive officer of Central Arizona Shelter Services; Carlton Martin, pro bono director at the National Homelessness Law Center; Marqueia Watson, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness; and Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Attendees learned about a new, well-funded, coordinated push for criminalization laws; the wide-ranging impacts of criminalization on individuals experiencing homelessness; and the need to incorporate the voices of people with lived experience in our efforts to address homelessness and stop harmful legislation.

Effective Messaging and Communications Strategies to Advance Housing Justice” provided attendees with success stories from industry leaders and tips on how to maximize audience engagement and response, elevate visibility, and expand reach across diverse platforms. Deidre (Dee Dee) Swensik, director of communications at the National Housing Law Project, moderated a discussion about how effective communications strategies are executed through synergetic brand management, content creation, messaging, storytelling, and mobilization. The panel included Halley Holmes, senior director of communications with The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development; Tom Murphy, senior director of communications with the National Alliance to End Homelessness; and Nanci Flores, media relations manager at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The panel members shared advice on what organizations with few resources, bandwidth, and capacity can do to support their communications goals. They also provided insights on how to build media relationships, establish policy and advocacy partner networks, create successful campaigns, manage brands, and utilize social media. The speakers discussed tips on how to expand audience reach through Spanish language and Latino media, leverage overlooked networks outside of one’s organization, and partner with community leaders and people with lived experience and connections in the neighborhood. 

Rights, Retreats, and Red Tape: In Pursuit of a Just Disaster Recovery” focused on disaster housing recovery and featured NLIHC board member Chrishelle Palay, who is director of the Houston H.O.M.E. Coalition; Ariadna Michelle Godreau Aubert, the founder and executive director of Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico (which received NLIHC’s 2023 Sheila Crowley Housing Justice Award for its recovery work); Hannah Perls, staff attorney at the Harvard Law Environmental & Energy Law Program; and David Wheaton, an economic justice fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Moderated by NLIHC’s Senior Policy Analyst for Disaster Recovery Noah Patton, the panel involved discussions about pre-existing issues in the communities in which each panelist worked, ambiguities in the concept of human rights and its application in an age of climate change, and what a “right to return” might mean for households with low incomes living in climate-vulnerable areas. The latter half of the discussion focused on how households can be given real choices to remain in climate-vulnerable areas or leave for areas less impacted by climate change and whether current disaster recovery systems and housing discrimination mean that this choice is in fact an illusion.  

The Forum concluded with the Leadership Awards Presentation, during which NLIHC recognized Representative Cori Bush (D-MO), John Parvensky, and Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico for their outstanding contributions to the fight for housing justice. (See the article on the Leadership Awards Reception in this issue of Memo.)

Recorded messages to Forum participants from key congressional leaders were shared throughout the event, including from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY); Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH); Representative Cori Bush (D-MO); Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL); and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

NLIHC thanks all the speakers, panelists, and attendees who participated in this year’s Forum and who helped make it such a great success!