How Do We Change the Narrative Around Housing?

In-depth public opinion research points to ways to intensify support for housing justice policies—and to a few danger spots to avoid.

A semi-circular dial has a gradation from left to right of red to green, accompanying by 7 faces progressing from angry to smiling. This was done to better understand housing narrative.
In its housing narrative research, Lake Research Partners used a dial test where participants turn a dial up and down as they listened to a recorded message on housing to indicate how they felt about each part.

“There is obviously a housing crisis in this country. And by the way, we’re not winning,” says Dorian Warren, president of Community Change, a national organization devoted to building power among low-income people. Despite this assessment, however, Warren is not pessimistic about organizing for housing justice. He’s merely explaining why he’s taking seriously the recently released outcomes of housing narrative messaging research that Community Change, Race Forward, and PolicyLink commissioned, with funding from Funders for Housing and Opportunity. The research is  part of a project to “advance a housing justice narrative intended to achieve our goals of racial justice and homes for all.”

Much of that research’s results are very encouraging about the promise of housing justice organizing. But some outcomes have also been challenging to people’s assumptions about what works.

There have been multiple polls in recent years that have shown strong support across the U.S. for increasing affordable housing and for a federal role in making sure people can access housing they can afford. For example, a poll commissioned by the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign last year found that “more than eight in ten Americans believe ensuring housing affordability should be a ‘top national priority.’”

But the partners in this project wanted to know more detail about how to capitalize on that reality and figure out what would move people to act on that belief.

Housing has had “a lot of research on specific policies and virtually nothing on framing,” explains Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners (LRP), a political strategy and public opinion firm that works with progressive clients and which conducted the housing narrative research. LRP was hired to do a much more comprehensive dive into specific messaging, breaking out the fine-tuned responses of different demographic groups and political orientations to a range of messages, first through focus groups and then through dial testing, where people turn a dial up or down while listening to a message to indicate how positively they feel about it.

Values and Race

This research builds on existing evidence about what works when making the case for policy change broadly, no matter the cause. First, it is grounded in values-based messaging. Most progressive messaging currently follows the pattern of “problem, policy solution.” But despite its ubiquity, this is an uninspiring and ineffective approach. Martin Luther King Jr. did not inspire people to action by starting his famous speech with “I have a problem for you,” Lake points out, crediting Anat Shenker-Osorio, a cognitive linguist, for making this point in her book Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy.

Values-based messaging, on the other hand, always begins with invoking shared values, such as fairness or caring for children. The Opportunity Agenda, a strong proponent of values-based messaging, explains on its website, “Leading with facts and figures can reinforce an idea, but it doesn’t do much to persuade, particularly in this age of ‘fake news.’ Leading with values, on the other hand, activates emotions and opens an audience’s hearts and ears to the message.”

In 2018, the Race Class Narrative project, spearheaded by Demos, explicitly tested whether economic justice and racial justice messages did better separately or apart. Its goal was to examine whether a race-neutral message that tries to appeal to everyone on the basis of their economic situation was actually more successful than one that acknowledges race. They found that it wasn’t. In fact, explicitly naming race (in specific ways) actually strengthened the response to economic justice messages across all demographic groups, putting the lie to the idea that to build a strong multiracial progressive coalition, activists should avoid mentioning race for fear of turning people off.

The Housing Justice Narrative Initiative built upon values-based messaging and the findings of the Race Class Narrative Project to examine the particulars of housing-specific messages.

Who Is the Base? And Other Definitions

In doing this research, LRP used a specific framework that comes with definitions that are important to understanding what the research is suggesting, because the terms are not necessarily intuitive. Before engaging in focus groups or being played messages to respond to, participants were sorted into three broad categories—the base, the opposition, and the persuadables— based on a set of screening questions on worldview and policy support.

In this approach, for any given campaign, the base is composed of people who start off inclined to support the kinds of policies that a campaign is promoting, and the opposition is composed of those who start off committed to a worldview that does not support the goals of the campaign. For the housing justice narrative research, 22 percent of respondents were categorized as the base, and 17 percent as opposition.

The largest group was the persuadables—61 percent. An important thing to understand about people in this group is that they are not necessarily “in the middle” politically, in the sense of sliding along a spectrum. Instead they hold views that align with both the base and the opposition, often contradictory ones that tend to toggle on and off depending on who they have heard from most recently and how a given message is framed. This is why the manner in which messages are presented can make such a difference.

It’s also why advocates are cautioned to be wary of messaging that the opposition also supports. If the opposition likes it, it might be triggering values and narratives that are not in the long run supportive of a campaign’s overall goals, and might not be moving persuadables in the right direction.

While the goal with persuadables is, of course, to persuade, the goal with the base is usually to increase their intensity on an issue and energize and mobilize them to take action in a specific way. But it’s important to remember that “the base” does not necessarily think about things in the same way as advocates and organizers do.

When I attended a presentation at a Facing Race conference on the Race Class Narrative research in 2018, one of the presenters told those assembled, “You are not the base.” I remember the silence and uncomfortable shifting in the room. We all seemed to be thinking “Who are we then?”

The answer: People who had come to a conference on race and sought out a session on messaging were mostly people likely to be using racial justice messaging, running campaigns, doing advocacy, or organizing. The base encompasses people in the general public receptive to a certain message and likely to support it; advocates and organizers, the people who live and breathe a given topic, are their own subcategory. They cannot and should not assume that messages that they respond well to are necessarily going to resonate with others, even a majority of the base.

Of course advocates also won’t promote messages they aren’t comfortable with, so this kind of research also often measures their reactions as a separate group.

So What About Housing?

What does LRP’s research have to say about talking about housing?

First, that it’s good time to do it. People are ready for a national conversation on housing, and feel that there is a role for government in helping people meet their housing needs. Despite what housers might feel when facing NIMBY neighbors, there’s actually very little opposition to the idea of a governmental role in making sure everyone’s housing needs are met. “There’s just an underlying assumption that we have a lot of opposition, we got to beat back the opposition,” says Lake. “The short answer is no, that’s actually not our task.” What is lacking is intensity of support, in part because there are so many actors (government, developers, landlords, investors) that people don’t know who to blame.

Another thing that limits the intensity of support is talking about housing in an individualistic “commodity” way—seeing housing as a consumer good. That tends to make people feel like the crisis is inevitable. The term “public good” and even the word “affordable” apparently trigger the commodity way of thinking, perhaps one reason housing advocacy, which has largely been organized around affordability, has been struggling to gain traction.

Framing housing as a basic human need, especially one that supports children and is connected to people’s health and well-being, generates much stronger support. “A human-needs framework that taps into people’s real experience really helps us fight individualism,” says Lake.

Persuadables were also more inclined to start a conversation with the economy and jobs and fit housing into that, while the impulse of advocates and the base was to start with housing, and connect that to the economy. The good news, Lake emphasizes, is that either starting point still leads to support for housing.

As with the Race Class Narrative Project, adding references to racial discrimination and racial fairness into the messages actually increased how positively people responded to them. The top-performing messages all centered around fairness and inclusion. For example the messages included phrases like “most of us want to provide for our families, have a safe place to call home, and pursue our dreams, regardless of what we look like or where we come from” and “Everyone should be able to choose where to live when they can afford it. Being denied where to live because of race, family status, or disability is discrimination.”

To a racial justice advocate, these references to race may seem pretty tentative, and even push “colorblind” buttons, but in context they are considered very direct references.

I asked Lake whether having “when they can afford it” in there gave people an out to still think they weren’t supporting integration with their image of poor Black families. She said they’d tested that message with and without the phrase, and having it there didn’t increase the support for it meaningfully. Lake emphasized that they wouldn’t have advocated for leaving race out even if it had tested better. But also it doesn’t test better.

“You know, people think you need this caveat,” says Lake. “You actually don’t.”

The History Problem

But some things didn’t test so well. And one of those things was a message that led with the history of racism in housing policy. Participants responded well to references to getting rid of current discrimination, but all demographic groups except Black respondents (and advocates) dropped way off when the history of racism was emphasized.

Lake says that this isn’t specific to housing, or even race. “The history of anything has limited appeal in America,” she says. “It is a place that prides itself on looking to tomorrow.” She told a story of asking a focus group on a different topic if they should include some history of the issue in their message. “People said, ‘Yes, you have to include a little history. That’d be cool,’” she recalls. “So we asked how far back we should go. ‘Oh, six months ago.’”

Nonetheless, for a field that has been working hard to get people to realize that so much of our ongoing problems with segregation and disparate outcomes based on where you live is traceable back to a set of explicit policies like redlining, this was a difficult pill to swallow. The chat window on the first webinar that presented these findings was full of skepticism and concern.

“It’s our job to change the narrative, not adjust our storytelling to popular narratives. I understand the piece around wanting to get policies passed, but am struggling with this conclusion,” wrote Ivory Taylor, lead tenant organizer at Homeline in Minneapolis. Taylor later added that she felt talking about the history of racism had been a key part of moving policy with the Minneapolis City Council.

“It’s concerning that the history of segregation and exclusion is not testing well,” agreed Patience Malaba, director of government relations and policy for the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle–King County. “I see this shifting us to continue on a universalism framework that won’t effectively address targeted goals for housing justice and racial equity centering those with the greatest need.”

“This reminds me of the same-sex marriage campaigns,” wrote Anjan Chaudhry, director of community empowerment at the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development. “We used a lot of language developed by comms experts which helped to generate quick policy wins. But it didn’t lead to transforming their deeper beliefs around gender. In particular trans people and people of color were left out of the narratives. So we want to be careful about balancing the short-term policy wins with longer-term political education. Just because a message tests well with persuadables doesn’t mean we have to use it.”

Chaudhry’s concern speaks particularly to what happens when the messages and storytelling, and the deeper narratives behind them, aren’t fully aligned, and when not all of the frontline affected communities have been involved in the process of developing and using those messages and stories. The process of aligning those parts is discussed in Race Forward’s Narrative Pyramid Analysis Tool.

Lake and Community Change’s Warren understand the reactions, but both emphasize that the conclusion of the research is emphatically not to tell people to stop addressing the history of racism, or to suggest that meeting people where they are means leaving them there.

That finding about the history of racism was challenging for Warren to hear, he admits. But, he says, “I believe in empirical research, and I actually wanted to know, depending on the audience, which frames and stories work best.”

Warren emphasized that research results about how people react to different messages is information that can be applied improve organizing results—to open a door, to encourage people not to shut down until they’ve identified with you.

“Any good organizer knows you actually have to start where your audience is,” says Warren, who is Black. “If I’m in an all-Black audience, I’ll lead with the history of racism. If it makes them more intensely engaged and wanting to take action, by all means we’re going to use it. They are a large portion of the base. . . . If I’m in a different kind of audience, I might consider a different frame. . . . No one is suggesting you avoid race. But there is a little dance in good organizing in terms of how are you going to move your potential audience, not only to an understanding, but to action.” 

Similar, but less loaded, audience-specific findings included that Latinx respondents were particularly positive about messages that centered children, and persuadables were more responsive to housing messages when they were couched in the larger contexts of economy and health.

A July 8 webinar, one of a series exploring the implications of the research, focused in on the race angle more deeply. In that conversation, Chris Genese, a senior organizer at the Housing Trust Fund Project at Community Change, noted that organizers already don’t generally lead with history. “Our first conversation is about now, about what’s affecting the person we’re talking to,” Genese said. But importantly, he added, they do get there and those later conversations are “a crucial part of organizing and building power.”

Angela Glover Blackwell, founder in residence of PolicyLink, agreed. “You don’t knock on the door and start talking about slavery,” she noted. But in longer talks to mostly white audiences, Blackwell said, once she established rapport, she would come around to telling personal stories that highlighted the effects of historical racism on her family.

Kalima Rose, also of PolicyLink, posited in the chat for the June 10 webinar that it might be helpful to make a distinction between messaging, which can get people in the door or mobilized to a specific action, and political education, which is a longer-term, more in-depth process.

Next Step: Test It Out

Although this was “an unbelievably comprehensive” research effort, it was only the first step, says Lake. Now it has to be tested in the real world.

And the real world as it currently stands is much different than the one in which this research—which began last summer and wrapped up in April—was conducted. The pandemic and the uprisings have shifted and opened conversations about race, history, housing, and the role of government in unexpected and unprecedented—but also largely unmeasured—ways.

“I think we have to get better at hypothesis testing,” says Warren. “Let’s go talk to ordinary people who are the most affected and test this out. And let’s be honest about what the feedback is. I’m using hypothesis testing language very deliberately because that means we have a feedback loop. It forces us to be iterative. What isn’t working? What’s working? Let’s adjust.”

Community Change will be doing some of its own testing of new messages via mass text messages and social media placements.

And, says Lake, one of the most important things to remember is that the findings were actually very hopeful. People want to have a conversation about housing, the opposition is weak, and moving away from commodity language toward basic human need language might offer a very powerful way to intensify support. Given the rapidly approaching eviction crisis and the to-date lack of success getting rent relief passed through Congress, strengthening that support is exactly what the doctor ordered.

You can get the full details of what messages were tested, more findings, suggested phrases to emphasize, and detailed breakdowns on how different groups responded to different messages (along with webinar recordings) in the documents at the Housing Justice Narrative Initiative minisite.

If you’ve adjusted your messaging based on these outcomes, we want to know how it’s working out. Let us know in the comment section or at info@shelterforce.org.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hasn’t anyone noticed the correlation between housing unaffordability & scarcity with economic public policies which favors the built environment, heavily subsidized by the public dollar, in the name of “economic development”, which is how civic success has long been measured? And, how this mindset is an extension of the dated, narrow, limited, “urban planning” model in place across the U.S.? Whereby those who cannot afford to live in vibrant cities are quietly encouraged to move outside this catered marketplace, easily replaceable with younger, whiter folks or older asset-class whiter folks, where success is measured in business production-spending terms, rather than in retention of lower-middle income families and individuals? Focus on these economic policy designs, not on housing per se. Teach economics 101 because govts think in terms of revenues, growth, & stability.

  2. SOS: Messaging — Political Candidate Questionnaires and Surveys:

    We are part of a statewide advocacy group trying to stop capital equity and real estate equity firms from buying Iowa mobile home parks as investments, jacking up rents beyond tenants’ ability to pay, terminating tenancies with 60 days’ notice (whether the home is movable or it costs $5,000 to $14,000 to move the home), and engaging in other predatory practices. Our first round of bills died in the Iowa General Assembly.

    With elections coming up we want to ask incumbents and candidates to state and stake out their position on legislation, identity campaign contributors, describe their experience and meetings with mobile home park residents in their districts, etc. To that end, we are collecting surveys and questionnaires.

    We want to make sure we use proper messaging techniques based on this article, and toolkits from Frameworks Institute and others with expertise. Our team has scoured the web but found very few surveys that focus on mobile home parks and manufactured housing communities.

    We invite you to send examples, tips and referrals. Thanks so much. Be safe and well.

    Len Sandler
    Clinical Professor
    University of Iowa College of Law

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