Several new advocacy groups have sprung up to push for better housing policies at the state and national level. Their first job: Communicating how significant the problem really is.
The advertising executive Michael Franzini, founder of the nonprofit ad agency Public Interest, has created campaigns to fight AIDS, spur Holocaust awareness, and advocate for STEM education. The cause driving his latest campaign is a tricky one: He wants to bring housing policy—a topic that is now largely the purview of wonks, developers, big city activists, and a select few politicians—into the forefront of our national discourse.
To pull that off, Franzini and Public Interest developed a campaign called Home1, which so far consists of a series of slick explainer-style public service announcements detailing the roots of the current affordable housing crisis. Soon to come: a feature-length documentary that he hopes could be affordable housing’s Inconvenient Truth.
That’s where Home1 comes in. It’s an effort to raise an alarm about what it calls “the silent crisis in America” for a mass audience. With funding from the New York State Association for Affordable Housing and other affordable housing developers, Home1 submitted a television PSA called “Which Jobs Pay the Rent?” to major networks nationwide. Another new PSA offers a brief, infographic-laden explainer on the affordability dilemma.
The film reports; in New York City, a once-homeless woman has to work 20 hours a day to afford an apartment. The film’s title is inspired by the Housing Act of 1949, which some scholars say represents an “explicit social contract” to provide adequate housing for all Americans.
Some economists have criticized the study’s methodology, but there is widespread consensus that the country as a whole—not just high-cost metros—is not building enough homes. New home starts are barely above their 60-year low a decade after the Great Recession, and the National Association of Home Builders estimates builders will begin about 900,000 new homes in 2018—400,000 short of what’s needed to keep up with population growth.
There is also growing consensus on what should be done about the housing shortage: Ease density restrictions in high-opportunity areas near jobs and transit. This prescription, in the vein of California’s failed transit density bill, SB 827, is the pillar of Up For Growth’s advocacy.
Like the coalition California State Senator Scott Wiener attempted to convene around SB 827, Up For Growth is beginning to build a broad group of stakeholders. So far, members include traditional real estate companies and economic development groups in California, as well as the affordable housing developer BRIDGE Housing, and Make Room USA, a renters advocacy group with ties to FHO. Up For Growth is also in talks with environmental and transit advocacy groups, Kingsella said.
Nonprofits are also looking to make an impact on the housing issue, via a new consortium of charitable foundations called Funders for Housing and Opportunity. With their myriad interest areas, America’s largest philanthropies are well positioned to address the intersectional nature of housing, but the giving sector needs to have its own educational process. The creation of FHO stemmed from the revelation that “there wasn’t a commensurate amount of philanthropic attention on affordable housing issues at a time when housing issues are so critical,” said Don Chen, director of the Ford Foundation’s Just Cities and Regions team, and an FHO executive committee member.
The largest grantee from the fund so far is a a “multi-sector” federal housing policy initiative called Opportunity Starts at Home. Education, healthcare, civil rights, and economic mobility are all profoundly affected by access to housing, the group argues, and by putting these issues at the fore, federal officials might finally begin to take it seriously.
More than just housing people, FHO wants to provide families with “a home that is attached to opportunities,” said Susan Thomas, chair of FHO’s leadership team and a senior program officer of Melville Charitable Trust. They look to fund housing initiatives that move families “up the economic ladder and connect the next generation to educational opportunities,” and “connect the household to healthy food and a healthy lifestyle.”
The mortgage interest deduction, which allows people to deduct a portion of their mortgage payments from federal taxes, is a larger subsidy than all tax breaks and government funds for low-income renters combined. The Center on Policy and Budget Priorities recently found that 60 percent of America’s housing spending benefits households earning $100,000 per year or more. President Donald Trump’s tax reform bill slightly curtailed the MID—but it also significantly decreased the value of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, now the primary federal financing mechanism for low-income housing. That policy change could lead to 235,000 fewer affordable units being built or renovated over the next decade.
Whether they will have an Al Gore-sized impact remains to be seen, but there are already early signs that the discourse on housing is shifting. California’s SB 827 may have failed to sway enough voters first time around, but it succeeded in sparking a national conversation about the importance of densifying cities. Pending legislation in California, Massachusetts, Austin, and Minneapolis would apply similar smart growth principles. Building more public, affordable housing appears to be gaining in popularity, as evidenced by the hype surrounding a recent report detailing how the U.S. could build ten million units of public housing in ten years. And new rent-control initiatives are gaining steam in California, Washington, and Illinois.
Like the fight against climate change, the battle for better housing policy could be a frustratingly long one. Indeed, both find themselves severely stymied by the current administration. But as we’ve seen in high-cost cities, housing affordability can become so bad, so fast, that the issue could very well force itself.