Interview with Sheila Crowley, past president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition

Sheila Crowley speaks from a podium as she holds a piece of paper.
Sheila Crowley, past president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Photo courtesy of NLIHC

When word came that Sheila Crowley was intending to step down from her longtime role at the head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, we knew immediately that we wanted to do an exit interview with her. Crowley has led the organization through dramatic times, keeping a focus on those with the most pressing housing need when many wanted to just talk homeownership, staying the course with the National Housing Trust Fund, and modeling how to do national advocacy that leads with the voices of those directly affected. Shortly before Crowley’s actual departure, we spoke with her about how she got where she is, the state of the field, and what’s coming next.

Miriam Axel-Lute: How did you get involved in this field?

Sheila Crowley: I grew up in a household of Massachusetts Catholic Democrats, Kennedy-lover types. My mother was, in her own way, very supportive of the civil rights movement and taught us all about that.

Looking for a career in which one could express that, I started off in social work. The first thing I did was a practicum at the local mental health center, [which] was picking up clients who were de-institutionalized from the state psychiatric hospitals. Richmond, Virginia, where I lived, had a fairly robust community mental health system and old row houses in decline. A lot of people who worked at the state hospitals followed the patients out, bought up these houses, and provided board-and-care homes.

I was sent out from this mental health center to figure out what was going on in these houses. That was my first foray into thinking about how people, especially exceedingly poor people and people with disabilities, were housed.

My first job out of graduate school was with the YWCA of Richmond, and at the time YWCAs across the country were looking at the issues of domestic violence. It became clear that a hotline wasn’t sufficient, and we started putting people into a hotel and then developed a network of safe houses where volunteers would take in families. We eventually started the first shelter for battered women in Richmond, and I worked on the funding for that.

Then I went to work at The Daily Planet, a street-front mental health center, primarily serving drugged-out kids in the ’60s, but now it was in the same neighborhood as these board-and-care homes, and a lot of people with serious mental illness were showing up looking for something to do during the day.

Homeless people started showing up there, too; it was really the first sign of the emergence of serious homelessness in Richmond.

Harold Simon: When was this?

Crowley: I went to The Daily Planet in 1984, and I left there in 1992. When I started, we were serving 300 people a year, and when I left, it was 6,000.

In 1992, I decided that I had spent enough time patching people up; we weren’t doing anything to stem the tide. I decided I was going to study more deeply, and I was fortunate to go back to the School of Social Work (at Virginia Commonwealth University) to earn a Ph.D.

I decided to do a dissertation on housing, which was not part of the usual social work curriculum. I got a HUD dissertation grant to look at how federal housing policy is implemented at the local level. This was in 1994 and 1995. I studied the implementation of the Con[solidated] Plan by [then-HUD Secretary] Andrew Cuomo.

I applied for a Congressional Social Work Fellowship and was awarded that for 1996–1997. I went to Washington, D.C., and I landed with Paul Weech at the banking committee. Paul was the only housing staffer. I ended up working for Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Sen. John Kerry, who were on the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

After that, I worked at the Richmond Better Housing Coalition. In the meantime, this job opened. I got hired, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.

Axel-Lute: Tell us about The Daily Planet, and how that experience influences how you run the coalition?

Crowley: This was an agency that was rooted in a consumer empowerment model, so there was a conscious effort to reduce the distance between the staff and the clients. People didn’t sit behind desks. They hung out in the same communal space. There was a lot of work around community meetings, and solving problems of the community.

The coalition was one of the few places you could do national policy work where the people affected by policy were actually at the table. It always had [founder] Cushing Dolbeare’s approach to advocacy. It always had active engagement from people who were living in federally assisted housing. It keeps you grounded in what’s happening with people in a way that many people in Washington don’t have.

Axel-Lute: You did some research when you were working on your Ph.D. about the problem with tokenism in organizations that serve low-income people, and how that affects the perspective of the folks who end up advocating for them.

Crowley: There’s a lot of good research on tokenism. When you have somebody who is part of a group who is different from the other members, and there’s only one or two of those folks, then a great burden is placed on them to represent a large group of people who are not monolithic.

The research around when you get to critical mass so that the voice of that person is not drowned out by the dominant voices in the room is really 25 percent of the group. This is group theory.

Simon: How do you work with folks who don’t have the life experience of low-income people, especially when you try to move policy?

Crowley: Sometimes you end up being the token representative of the poor yourself, and you get marginalized. But, first of all, it’s making sure that you help people tell their own story, and that you are, as much as possible, the conduit, or the liaison.

The coalition has this reputation of being an organization that is not representing any segment of the industry, per se. We’re not a trade association for anybody, but our voices are on behalf of people who need housing. That has to constantly be validated by being in touch with people, and making sure they have the opportunity to come to Washington to meet with their own congressmen.

Cushing told me after you move to Washington, you don’t really learn anything new about housing at the local level. And I find that to be true. But, I’m able to maintain a sense of the experiences of people who are in need of housing.

Axel-Lute: Tell us what it was like to work with Cushing Dolbeare.

Crowley: I was very excited to have the opportunity to work with Cushing. She welcomed me in the most gracious way, and managed boundaries really well. There’s all these organizations where the founder hangs out for too long, gets in the way, and never lets go. That was not Cushing. She was intellectually committed to the issue, extremely committed to the success of the organization, and that meant she was committed to my success.

I’m grateful to her for being a mentor, and a good friend. She left us with a tremendous legacy of respect and high regard.

Axel-Lute: We were very excited to hear about the initial disbursements from the National Housing Trust Fund. That was a long fight to get it first created, and then funded. What does it take to keep supporting a goal like that over such a long period of time?

Crowley: We were extremely fortunate to have Melville Charitable Trust provide funding for the trust fund campaign. That’s absolutely essential, because if you don’t have a funding partner, you end up moving from issue to issue. The strength of the coalition is that we develop our policy agenda, and then we offer it to funders as things they should be interested in, as opposed to looking at what funders are doing and coming up with something they might like, which leaves you having no mission at all.

Also, there were so many naysayers who made me that much more adamant that we were going to get it done. My favorite was, “You’re asking for too much,” like poor people don’t deserve to get as much as we’re asking for, when of course what we’re asking for isn’t even enough to begin to address the problems.

And of course, any legislation has to go through numerous twists and turns. The initial legislation and proposal for the trust fund was at the end of the Cuomo administration. Had the 2000 election gone differently, we probably would have had the trust fund done the next year.

We adapted a proposal many times. But the one thing we never steered away from was the focus on rental housing, even though lots of people said, “Well, if you don’t do that, you have a better chance.”

I didn’t care where the funding came from as long as it didn’t come from another program for poor people.

We finally got it passed, and then you’re in this, “What do you mean the whole financial world is collapsing around us, and that’s going to screw this money?” That was a shocker to everybody.

Unfortunately, it took a long time, and a change at the Federal Housing Finance Agency, to get the suspension [of funding from the GSEs] reversed, but we stuck it out. We sued Ed DeMarco (former acting FHFA director). It certainly kept the issue in front of them. We worked hard on getting Mel Watts’ nomination approved, and then we worked to get him to lift [the suspension]. It took a year, because he’s a careful man who looks at all the angles, and he still didn’t do it retroactively, which we were disappointed in, but he did it.

And so, now we’re finally here at this point to get it started. The money should be more. At the time the bill passed, there was an expectation that it would be much more than it is.

The next step is to get it implemented, [make sure it’s] used wisely, and convince people that it’s a good investment and there should be more money going into it.

Simon: In the last couple of years, policymakers have been talking about poverty. Is that purely rhetoric, or are there fewer naysayers now?

Crowley: For a long time, people said, “Don’t use the word ‘poor’ or ‘poverty,’ because that doesn’t poll very well.” That’s obviously changed. I think the attention around issues of poverty is really related to the fact that everybody knows the system is unequal. Rich people are getting very rich, and everybody else isn’t. So, income inequality is a clearly accepted problem. I read about polling that Frank Luntz did for Republicans around what the 18-to-30 group, and especially the 18-to-21 group, thought. They see income equality as the biggest problem facing this country.

If you look at history, we go through these swings where people see poverty as a structural problem that is affecting a large number of people and requires a large-scale intervention, and periods where we see poverty as a personal failing. Poor people don’t really change, but the attitude about them changes a lot. We’re back into a swing where, because of income inequality, people are recognizing that poverty is not just the result of somebody being morally lax.

Axel-Lute: What do you think about mortgage interest deduction reform?

Crowley: Mortgage interest deduction reform is coming. There’s no doubt about it. At the very least the cap will be lowered down to $500,000. Whether there’ll be broader change remains to be seen, but that’s not the question. The question is what’s going to happen to the money, and what will we do with it.

If the housing world does not come together to say, “We want at least some of that money to stay in housing,” then it’ll go to other places—deficit reduction, rate reduction, or new spending. New spending is not just housing, it’s many, many other things. My hope is that the housing community will rally to the cause and decide that some, if not all, of the savings needs to go into solving [housing] problems.

The industry that supports the mortgage interest deduction has no reason to start negotiating with anybody, because we’re not at a place where there’s serious legislation. But, it’ll come. [In April] at a budget committee hearing, Sen. Mike Enzi cited a GAO study about the $170 billion that the federal government spends on housing that’s duplicative and inefficient, and included in that was the mortgage interest deduction.

So, we’re heading there, but it’s going to take time.

Axel-Lute: What do you see as the future of public housing?

Crowley: Public housing is being starved. Congress is still operating under a deal it struck in 2011, which no longer applies to anything. On the other hand, public housing remains a vital resource. Most public housing authorities are doing a good job, and most public housing residents are happy. The evidence is the waiting list. If people hated it so much, why are the waiting lists so long?

The nation would be in very serious trouble if we let the public housing stock continue to erode.

Axel-Lute: How about the Rental Assistance Demonstration projects [that infuse private capital into public housing]? Now that the projects are happening, do you have any feedback or concerns about it?

Crowley: We don’t have enough evidence yet, but we’re not hearing anything bad. The people who are monitoring RAD are feeling like it’s certainly not another Hope VI debacle. But, I think we’ll know better once there’s more of a track record to evaluate.

Axel-Lute: In 2009, the coalition got a $5 million donation and created an endowment, which is something most nonprofits only dream of. Did it change the way you operated?

Crowley: We actually started an endowment in Dolbeare’s honor earlier. Cushing received the Heinz Award for the Human Condition in 2002, which had a $250,000 cash prize attached to it. She and her husband gave that to the coalition as the seed money for an endowment.

That enabled us to launch a campaign to raise money to establish an endowment, and that got us to about $1.75 million. Having an endowment which kicks off money each year provides a pretty significant safety net against the vicissitudes of a funders’ world.

In 2009, we got this out-of-the-sky $5 million from a longtime member, which our board then [used to] set up an endowment under the same rules as the Dolbeare endowment.

When we decided to go full-speed ahead on mortgage interest deduction reform, the board decided to spend money out of the endowment to support that campaign. That was a big deal. We spent $1 million over two years out of our endowment to do polling, grants to some of our state partners, and organizing in their states to commission additional research.

It created some freedom to think more broadly. But, in some ways it made people think we were rich. I don’t have any direct evidence that people held back giving to us as a result of it, but I did hear, “Well, you guys are doing so much better than other organizations.”

Axel-Lute: Do you have any thoughts about how we can link the private rental market and advocacy around subsidized housing?

Crowley: It’s all part of a continuum. The voucher program was created to tap into the housing that was provided by the private market. And more and more vouchers are being attached to publically subsidized units with the low-income housing tax credits.

But, there are people whose income is too low and too unpredictable to be able to sustain regular safe housing. It illustrates the intersection between not just income, but also the way jobs are structured in the United States, the failure of our safety net to actually be a net, and of the deplorable state of the housing market for people at the low end.

I’ve asked how many vouchers would be needed in order for it to change the way the market operates. The major concern is that, if you put vouchers out there as they are now, then you would just cause rents to be inflated because the landlords would play to what the payment standard was.

You need to invest in improving and expanding the housing stock. For the private market landlord, there needs to be accountability around housing standards. Municipal governments need to have the resources to be able to hold people accountable for what the housing stock is.

We’ve also hollowed out the ability for people to have legal representation. We’ve hollowed out everything that created the basic social minimum. We need to go back to understanding the importance of government doing those things.

Simon: Too many people still think that government is too big to drown in a bathtub.

Crowley: They think that until they can’t get basic service from their local government. People get frustrated about their inability to get basic services. People will recognize that there are minimum expectations. They don’t want their bridges to fall down, or their schools to fail.

Axel-Lute: Looking at the broader affordable housing field, and even the community development field that surrounds it, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing us? What message would you give your colleagues?

Crowley: It’s crucial for us to pay attention to what’s going to happen around criminal justice reform. The prison system has been part of our low-income housing system for the past 20 years, because we’ve put lots of poor black and Latino men into prison.

We recognize that we’re over-incarcerating people and we need to reduce that. Also, there’s $80 billion a year that gets spent on our prison system. Where is that money going? What is the housing response to reducing incarceration? There is an opportunity to remind people about the crucial role that housing plays in anything related to rehabilitation and crime prevention.

I also have to say that if you’re trying to predict the future, you’re just deluding yourself into thinking you know something, because who a year ago would have thought that Donald Trump would be leading the Republican Party to become their candidate? And who in 2006, other than a half-dozen highly brilliant people, thought that the world economic system would collapse because of our mortgage practices? You can look back historically and say, “Well, here’s the elements that led to that,” but when you’re in it, you don’t really see that.

Axel-Lute: What does the future hold for you?

Crowley: I am taking the summer off. I want to hang out with my husband, who I adore, and I don’t get to see as much as I would like since we’ve both been working for 60, 80 hours a week for many years. Two years ago, we bought an old house in a rural county on the Chesapeake Bay that we’re doing a lot of work on. Then we’re going to travel.

I’ve already got people talking to me about consulting things, which I’m excited about. I’m hopeful that I’ll get the burst of whatever it takes to produce a book or two. I’d like to teach.

Thank You.

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