A Matter of Trust

Although a March 2007 Zogby International poll found that affordable housing was an important election issue, most elected officials have yet to place creating a housing trust fund at the top of their to-do list. Elected officials need to hear from their constituencies that committing public revenues to affordable housing is a safe vote for them to make.

In most cases, housing trust funds – established by ordinance or legislation to dedicate an ongoing source of public funding to affordable housing – come into being as a result of a community campaign with citizen participation. Currently, there are at least 30 such campaigns underway to create new housing trust funds or to increase revenues of existing funds in places as diverse as Colorado, Mississippi, Michigan, and Louisiana, as well as in Wichita, Kan., Nashville, Tenn., Albany, N.Y., and Long Beach, Calif.

This spring, the Center for Community Change’s Housing Trust Fund Project released The Housing Trust Fund Progress Report 2007, which outlines the characteristics of city, county, and state housing trust funds and highlights some developing trends. Six hundred funds have been created around the country within the past three decades. These funds are the source of some $1.6 billion each year in local and state revenues to support critical housing needs. They have brought about an extraordinary shift in the way we fund housing for lower-income people.

The Housing Production Trust Fund in Washington, D.C., is expected to receive nearly $60 million for affordable housing in 2007 from real-estate recordation and transfer taxes. Unnamed, unclaimed property funds are committed to Arizona’s housing trust fund, which targets a majority of the $25 million or more in annual revenues to affordable housing in rural areas. The housing trust fund in Chicago, which has developed rental subsidy programs for households earning no more than 30 percent of the area median income, receives local revenues in addition to document recording fees from the state’s Rental Housing Support Program.

What motivates a community to coalesce around a housing trust fund campaign? And how does such a bold initiative – one that requires public funds to be dedicated to affordable housing – keep moving forward? Housing advocates, community-based groups, and organizing networks have experienced just how much affordable-housing issues resonate with their members and neighborhood residents. In Charlottesville, Va., 1,600 people turned out at Interfaith Movement for Promoting Action by Congregations Together’s action aimed at getting officials to create a local housing trust fund. In San Mateo County, Calif., Peninsula Interfaith Action mobilized 1,500 residents to demand a countywide housing trust fund. More than 800 organizational and individual “friends” endorsed the Colorado Housing Investment Fund Coalition’s statewide campaign. Seventy-five housing, advocacy, and development groups showed up in Biloxi, MS, just to learn how to create a housing trust fund for their state.

The creation of a housing trust fund shows that providing decent, safe, affordable housing is a priority, and that a city, county, or state is willing to commit scarce public revenues to address affordable-housing concerns. We know there is a crisis, and housing trust funds provide an opportunity to create systemic change to address it.

After 20 years of working with organizers and others on housing trust fund campaigns, I have chosen six factors that are influential in making housing trust funds an effective organizing catalyst.

1. Choosing the issue. The importance of decent housing resonates personally for most people. But the impact that deteriorated housing has on a neighborhood is also felt by a majority of residents. We can identify specific manifestations: the threat to children’s health created by substandard housing; the hardships imposed on school performance from overcrowded housing or frequent moves; and the stress put on families from excessive commuting times. The public resonates with the elderly in need of housing, people with disabilities unable to find suitable homes, families with children paying half or more of their income for housing. Affordable housing creates jobs, adds to the tax base, and forms the foundation for a vital community. It doesn’t take much of a conversation for affordable housing to emerge as an issue capable of impelling people to action.

2. Winning the fight. Six hundred housing trust funds provide clear evidence it is a winnable issue. The creation of a housing trust fund is a concrete action – the passage of a resolution, ordinance, or legislation that establishes the fund and commits public revenues to it for years into the future. A housing trust fund campaign is particularly appealing because it calls for something positive to happen. For too long, housing advocates have struggled only to keep woefully inadequate funding commitments in place.

Because it is crafted to address the problems and opportunities associated with affordable housing in the area, a housing trust fund also has direct local impact. The process of creating a housing trust fund calls for the community to set strategic priorities among possible outcomes. Thus, a housing trust fund translates into concrete and measurable wins for the community. It doesn’t get better than this.

3. Identifying good targets. Every organizing group experiences a finite sphere of influence, but one of the exciting aspects of a housing trust fund campaign is that this sphere is usually broadened. A local campaign can become a state campaign, and a state campaign has an impact locally. As a result, each group gains expanded capacity by learning new strategies. Because the target is ultimately the body of elected officials, the campaign’s strategies can get pretty complicated: a task force may be established; the proposal will go through committees; deals will be negotiated. Groups learn about the law-making process and feel more comfortable participating in it because they engage directly with elected officials through meetings, actions, and hearings. Developing these relationships and participating in the legislative process brings elected officials into focus for community residents. And in every instance, this work translates into the importance and power of voting.

4. Creating alliances. Affordable housing is an issue with broad reach, and building alliances to support a housing trust fund is fundamental to the campaign’s success. Alliances are needed to balance the range of power exerted by the opposition. Organizations learn volumes from building relationships. And while relationship-building is an organizer’s forte, sharing power is not. Therefore, creating alliances takes careful planning to ensure that each organization is comfortable with their role in the campaign and that individual organizations gain the recognition they deserve.

5. Communicating in new ways. Striking advances have resulted from housing trust fund campaigns: new frames for debating affordable housing, and creative techniques for communicating affordable-housing objectives. The language of these campaigns reflects a new way of seeing affordable housing as part of a healthy community: “We need the people who need affordable housing”; “open the door”; “another rent increase, another new neighborhood, another year behind in school”; “a penny for affordable housing”; “let’s keep a good thing going.”

Statistics about affordable housing needs, overwhelming as they may be, have dropped into the background, and at least three themes have replaced them: putting a face on affordable housing; placing affordable housing within economic parameters; and connecting housing to other community issues, such as health, education, job opportunities, and family stability. We’ve learned to brag about what can be accomplished, instead of being embarrassed about what exists. We can take the very best affordable housing examples and show what can be done.

6. Building power. I believe power is gained from the process not just from the outcome, so the process has to be participatory. With the average housing trust fund campaign lasting three years (some have taken far longer), that’s a lot of participation. There are huge challenges in keeping leaders involved, excited, and eager for a win throughout the process, when it may take years. Learning the nuances of what makes a housing trust fund successful, developing a well-conceived mutual plan, forging new alliances, and convincing elected officials to adopt new priorities are all about power. Learning at every step strengthens the involvement and builds the organization.

Housing trust funds are complicated by nature, and the process to get them enacted is tedious. Creating systemic change in public policy is rarely quick or easy. The value in being part of a housing trust fund win comes both from gaining incredible new spheres of knowledge and witnessing that participation does matter. I have learned more than I can express from people from all walks of life who give precious time and energy to an organization, who share unique understandings about their communities, and who have special gifts to bring to the process. To me, that makes housing trust funds an organizing issue.

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