Grassroots Advocacy Strengthens Housing Trust Fund

Washington state housing activists came together in 1997 to launch the  Housing Our Community Campaign to increase the state Housing Trust Fund (HTF) to $100 million per biennium.  The HTF, which had been funded at about $50 million per biennium since 1991, finances a broad range of housing for low-income people around the state.

The campaign drew on years of groundwork creating and expanding a grassroots statewide network.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Seattle-area housing advocates recognized the need to reach out to communities around the state to influence state policy.  The Washington State Low Income Housing Network, a statewide housing coalition, was created and staffed in 1993 to broaden and strengthen the network.

As the 1999 legislative session began, over 330 organizations and individuals from around the state were part of the campaign’s grassroots network.  In addition to those in the network, a database of 4,500 contacts has been maintained and used to identify potential advocates in specific legislative districts.  In the fall, before the legislative session began, campaign organizers gave presentations around the state, focusing on areas that had not been involved in state policy advocacy in the past.  This outreach work was successful in recruiting over 100 new housing advocates.

Throughout the session campaign staff distributed weekly legislative alerts to advocates on the progress of housing  bills.  The alerts were distributed by e-mail, broadcast fax, and regular mail.  Action items were outlined in each alert for immediate response.  Advocates were organized to testify at hearings and contact legislators in key positions at key times.

The campaign’s success during this legislative session is due to the carefully orchestrated efforts of grassroots advocates from around the state and the breadth of the advocacy network.  The root of the campaign’s success is large numbers of people from many different areas contacting their legislators about the need for state investment in low-income housing.

Some of the other important lessons of the campaign are:

  • Bi-partisan/statewide support.   The campaign focused on developing support from rural areas, outside of the Puget Sound.  The campaign also developed relationships with both Democratic and Republican legislators who later championed housing issues during the session.
  • A well-organized network for targeted lobbying.  Moving a bill through the legislative process requires lots of relationships and persistent advocacy.  Throughout the process key legislators are critical to the success or failure of a bill.  The campaign had members from across the state who we were able to quickly mobilize when needed.  Our network mobilized supporters in targeted districts throughout the session including bringing people to the capital from all corners of the state for hearings.
  • Building relationships during the off session.  Once the legislative session starts, schedules quickly fill and arranging meeting times to discuss issues becomes difficult.  The campaign urged advocates to work with their legislators before the session started.  Many of our key advocates arranged site visits, one-to-one meetings, and town meetings with their legislators to discuss housing issues during the off session.
  • Plugging away even in bad years.  In years where housing does not seem to be a top priority for legislators, it is easy to lose motivation for the cause.  But by continuing with our message consistently, eventually we are heard. The organizing and education work during the off years poised us to take advantage of opportunities created by the last elections and the increased visibility of housing needs this past year.
  • Having a consistent and clear message.  A campaign message needs to be short, easy for all advocates to remember and recite, and share the vision of the group.  “$100 million for the Housing Trust Fund.”  Many other human service campaigns share our dedication to low-income housing and have started to include $100 million for the HTF in their legislative agendas.
  • Combining grassroots advocacy with skilled lobbying.   The Campaign has the significant help of a skilled and experienced lobbyist who worked in concert with the advocacy network.  The lobbyist had developed relationships with legislators over several years and identified targets and action items during the session.

In addition to these important tactics, the Housing Our Community campaign drew upon the support of several cities and counties, banks and thrifts, communities of faith, community action agencies, housing authorities, and other statewide advocacy coalitions.

We developed campaign materials that outlined the economic benefits of low-income housing development, the track record of the HTF, success stories, and the need for additional resources.  We did a photographic display in the capital rotunda highlighting success stories of families benefiting from the Housing Trust Fund.

This year we secured $78 million in state capital funding for low income housing, up 23 percent from $54.7 million in the previous biennial budget.  We are now planning interim strategies to reach our goal of $100 million for the 2001-2003 biennium.

 

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