Issue #146, Summer 2006

Managing the Message

Telling Stories that Support Affordable Housing

This is the story of how Mary, the low-income person, became Mary, the school bus driver. She used to work for a minimum wage, but now she’s the head of a working family. While she was once hopelessly in need of public assistance, now she’s working hard, but she still can’t afford a place of her own.

If these sentences don’t suggest that anything about Mary’s life has actually changed, that’s because nothing has. Mary, an imaginary character whose life looks a lot like that of millions of Americans, is still low-income, still cashing paychecks that don’t cover all the bills and still needs help from the government. So why should Mary’s tale be told any differently than before?

Michael Anderson has learned that describing Mary as a hardworking mother, who happens to perform the essential role of driving other people’s children to school, makes a huge difference to people who are skeptical about affordable housing. Anderson, who heads the Community Development Network (CDN) in Portland, Oregon, has spent a lot of time thinking about how he and other housing advocates portray people like Mary. His work on “messaging,” how to frame the housing debate, has opened his eyes. For Anderson and fellow advocates to build support for better state and local policies on affordable housing, the key is to show people that their own neighbors will benefit. By contrast, for years advocates have managed to turn off editors, politicians and voters who hear “affordable housing” and visualize a faceless mass of the needy.

“We didn’t realize the extent to which we were furthering that dynamic by using phrases like ‘low income’ and ‘affordable housing’ without getting specific,” he says. “Through the messaging work, that door opened up to us. Now we are able to have conversations with people who were once strictly adversaries.”

Messaging isn’t the only thing that’s shaping the housing debate in the United States. As the cost of housing soars, middle-class people are struggling to pay for it as well. That makes them more receptive to calls for increased funding for affordable homes. But there is a risk that this funding will be directed only to help the middle class, and the people with the greatest need will gain little. On the other hand, by reframing the way low-income people are perceived, advocates may be able to accomplish more for their cause than merely capturing more dollars for housing.

A Matter of Fairness
In 2004, Anderson and other activists in Portland and across the state decided they’d had enough of people telling them their message amounted to a sob story. One editor had bluntly told Anderson, “these stories don’t sell, they’re just depressing.” CDN decided to do some research to identify what messages resonated with people, and which ones made them tune out.

CDN borrowed some of the teachings of George Lakoff, a consultant to the Democratic Party, on how to reframe issues like the estate tax, which Republicans have labeled a “death tax.” Lakoff advises activists against getting caught up in facts and figures about a problem. Instead, he tells them they have to speak to people’s basic values, such as fairness. He would say that the term “inheritance tax,” often used to define the estate tax, works because it’s only fair to tax wealth before it’s passed on to heirs.

That line of thinking shaped the questions that CDN asked Oregon residents. Most of the people polled were homeowners who did not plan to buy or sell a house in the next five years. When asked whether they agreed more with the statement that government already does enough for people who need housing, or that government should help anyone who works to afford a decent home, a much larger percentage of people said the second statement represented their perspective.

This attitude shows up repeatedly in numerous polls and focus groups that researchers have done in the last few years. Most people recognize that not enough affordable housing exists where they live, and they support building more of it. They also see the link between housing and children’s ability to do well in school or adults’ ability to stabilize other aspects of their lives.

People’s support for affordable housing is more tentative when they are asked more specific questions. CDN asked residents whether certain groups need help to find affordable homes; 81 percent said yes about disabled people and 72 percent about senior citizens. By contrast, only 47 percent agreed that the homeless need immediate help to find homes. People also drew a distinction between affordable and “low-cost” housing. While 42 percent said the lack of affordable homes affected them personally, only 28 percent said the same of low-cost housing.

When the Fannie Mae Foundation conducted focus groups in 2004, it found many people’s openness to affordable housing is qualified by their concern that some people do not deserve it. The foundation’s research was part of its Public Education Initiative, intended to raise the public’s awareness of the importance of affordable housing. The focus groups met in nine cities in four states and included residents identified as being active in their communities. Residents were asked to comment on the good and bad impacts affordable housing could have in their neighborhoods. One of the bad impacts, some said, would be if people living in affordable homes were “freeloaders,” that is, if they had an inferior work ethic or were otherwise undeserving.

The tendency for people to welcome the idea of affordable housing in a general sense, but to have a much more guarded reaction to it when it is planned for their neighborhood or when it benefits certain demographic groups, has led many advocates to rethink how they tell the housing story.

Teachers, Cops and Community
Housing Minnesota was one of the first statewide coalitions formed to raise the public’s consciousness of affordable housing. The group was launched in 1999 with the specific mandate “to change the often negative and misunderstood public image of people who need affordable housing.” (See Shelterforce #122.) It did this by designing advertisements for TV and billboards that showed who these people are. The faces that beamed out at the public were of a schoolteacher who can’t afford to live in the town where she works, a child who can’t get established in school because his family is always moving and a senior citizen on a fixed income. Later, the campaign added images of a cook, mechanic, nurse and a childcare worker.

Since then groups all over the country have jumped on the idea that specific occupations, particularly of essential workers such as nurses and police officers, resonate with the public when it comes to affordable housing.

Depicting affordable housing in this way is somewhat controversial. For one thing, some research shows that the public actually doesn’t think firefighters and other essential workers need affordable housing as much as people who are likely to have lower incomes. A study conducted for the Vermont Housing Awareness Coalition in 2002 showed that seniors and young families are the groups voters think are most likely to need affordable housing. Only 15 percent of those polled thought municipal employees needed this kind of help.

“I think the messages are crafted that way for the elected officials, because they’re the first line of persuasion,” says Julie Bornstein, director of the Campaign for Affordable Housing, which gathers research for communities trying to overcome local opposition to housing. “Many of them have owned their houses for several years and may not be aware of what the homebuying market is currently like. Yet they support their municipal workers and are always priding themselves on the quality of their schools, and they find it very persuasive when told that the development coming before them for a vote will have housing affordable to teachers, police officers and firefighters.”

Many advocates are spinning the housing issue in a larger context, pointing out that an affordable housing stock enables a wide variety of people to live in a community who give it vitality. The Maine State Housing Authority emphasized this theme in a series of ads it produced in 2001: “When a segment of the population is forced to live elsewhere, the community ultimately suffers. Businesses can’t find the employees they need to expand, community-based volunteer services disappear, and the community that was once so desirable isn’t anymore.”

Housing Illinois, a network of 45 housing organizations, lenders, developers, foundations and public agencies, is currently investing in advertising on TV and other media that offers some “surprising facts,” such as “You’ll never believe who needs affordable housing.” “… If you think it just affects the very poor, think again.”

Kevin Jackson, co-chair of Housing Illinois, is also director of the Chicago Rehab Network (CRN), which is composed of low-income housing advocates and developers. He says some of CRN’s members are dissatisfied with an approach that emphasizes the needs of a higher-income segment. But he is certain it is the right way to go.

“Our approach isn’t to exclude anyone,” he says. “[But] it isn’t to demonstrate what CRN is about, [either]. My members are very clear what they’re concerned about. The point is, it’s not about my interests, it’s for people who are undecided. Like it or not, the affordable housing problem covers a much larger population than we recognize.”

Another way to tell the public that this isn’t the kind of affordable housing they fear is to stop using the term altogether. Many public and nonprofit leaders now refer to “workforce housing.” Anderson, of Portland’s CDN, jokingly refers to it as “manager-force housing,” because the term has been used to describe homes affordable to people earning as much as 120 percent of median income. It is also misleading, because when elected officials call for workforce housing, they often mean teachers and firefighters, but not all working people. But the term makes a difference in some people’s minds. “It’s an intellectual shortcut, because it overcomes the misconception that people who live in affordable housing are not contributing to our society and that they’re undesirable,” says Bornstein. “It tends to reinforce the idea that they are people who work, in jobs we depend on.”

The Income Dilemma
Out of Fannie Mae Foundation’s research has come a new organization, Homes for Working Families, that promotes solutions to the housing crisis among legislators and business leaders. Like other advocates, the group points to the needs of police, nurses and other key workers, but it goes further in focusing exclusively on people earning from 60 to 120 percent of median income, people who are not poor but still can’t afford housing. The idea is that people at the low end of the income scale at least have some government programs they can turn to for housing aid, but people earning close to the median income don’t have that option.

Beverly Barnes, who oversaw communications for the Fannie Mae Foundation and is now executive director for Homes for Working Families, says there is a good deal of anecdotal evidence that employers have trouble finding workers, municipalities can’t fill key positions and student achievement suffers, all because of housing costs. But her organization intends to gather more data to make the point and help shape housing policy. She sees the group’s emphasis on the median income segment as a way to bridge the gap between policies that only aid very low-income people and ones that help the middle class. Homes for Working Families will also show examples of how people will support affordable homes if they are designed in a way that blends into their neighborhoods.

Liz Hersh, director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, was a partner in Fannie Mae Foundation’s research in 2004. She pronounces herself a “convert” to the messaging cause. Using the phrase “homes within reach” as a slogan, the Housing Alliance has been able to get leaders in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate to hold committee hearings on the housing crisis for the first time in years. Meanwhile, instead of demanding “no budget cuts,” alliance members are pitching stories to the media that “these programs are vital to the community and are really working.” The effect has been to increase media coverage of the issue in many parts of the state, as editors see these stories as offering potential solutions to the housing crunch.

Hersh has not adopted Homes for Working Families’ focus on median income families, however. The Housing Alliance’s mission is to serve families earning under $30,000. Other statewide groups that have heard about Homes for Working Families are worried about an approach that diverts attention from people at the lowest end of the income range.

“Some have said this is skimming the cream of the affordable housing issue and there’s a real danger of promoting one segment that has a less severe housing need,” says Chip Halbach, who directs Minnesota Housing Partnership, the lead sponsor of Housing Minnesota. “I question [Homes for Working Families’] decision, but I can live with it, because what they do is of value to what I do here and what other groups are doing around the country.”

Hersh’s group has had success with a different approach. Instead of promoting the relative importance of finding housing for people who work in certain occupations or are in a particular income range, the Housing Alliance frames housing as a market issue, a matter of supply and demand. The alliance developed this frame after talking with the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities in Miami, which has found that many people think smart growth means government interference in the free market. Action Media, a consulting firm that did research for the Funders’ Network on the smart growth issue, has done a similar analysis of how to frame the housing problem. They found that just as people want choices in where to build their homes, they also want to be free to choose whether to have an expensive house or an affordable one.

The Housing Alliance developed a continuum of housing options that need to exist within a given market. They include market-rate and low-cost homeownership, market-rate and low-cost rentals and supportive housing. “Low-cost refers to the structure, not the attributes of the buyer,” says Hersh. “We just need houses on the market that cost less, just like when you go to the grocery store. This is a steak and caviar housing market, in which there really aren’t enough choices. That’s a very powerful argument.”

Translating Messages Into Policies
Some statewide groups are hoping to turn their success in identifying what makes people more supportive of affordable housing into policy changes. In other states, such as Illinois, the housing awareness campaigns are not pushing policy changes, since there are already statewide and metropolitan coalitions in place that do that.

New policies and more housing dollars have certainly been the goals of Michael Anderson of Portland’s Community Development Network. When he and other members of regional and statewide housing advocacy coalitions entered the halls of Portland City Hall and the Oregon state capitol in January 2005, he was armed with the fruits of a year’s worth of messaging research.

Anderson and his fellow advocates also brought a savvy lobbyist with them who could work both sides of the aisle in the state legislature. But that alone wouldn’t have been enough to get the first state affordable housing bill passed in many years.

While they worked with elected officials, the advocates also plied editors at the state’s major newspapers with their new ideas. “Most of our media outlets are pretty conservative,” says Anderson. “A lot of times we couldn’t get coverage from them. But I believe we made it more compelling. We would put out press releases referring to the cost of a home health worker who takes care of a grandparent and is unable to afford the rent in our capital city.” To make sure the opposition couldn’t paint the problem as confined to liberal Portland, advocates noted examples of people who couldn’t afford homes in Bend, a small city in an otherwise rural part of the state.

“We found that by taking these specific stories and connecting them to other specific geographical areas around the state, we could avoid it being, ‘here’s the story of Mary,’ but rather, ‘the story of Mary is the story of what’s going on in Oregon.’ We were very careful about that when we were putting press releases together or planning press conferences, making sure that when we did bring up an individual face, they themselves were an example.”

Republican legislative leaders in some of the most conservative districts in the state saw examples in their local media of people struggling to pay for housing. These were people who would never identify as low income, but they did identify as people who worked and still weren’t making it. The advocacy campaign provided these legislators with the cover they needed to support housing funding. In 2005 the campaign pushed successfully for an increase in the state earned income tax credit guidelines and a more than doubling of the state low income housing tax credit. Though these were modest victories, advocates considered them a breakthrough in a legislature that had long been hostile to affordable housing.

Though Housing Minnesota built a lot of awareness of the housing crisis as a result of its advertising, in its first few years it didn’t tie its work to specific policy changes. But it did establish the goal of providing homes for all residents by 2012.

After 9/11 and the election of a conservative governor in 2002, the group conducted a poll of the public’s views on affordable housing as it tried to figure out the best way to proceed in a difficult political climate.

“What came out of that was that the message had to be much more centered on what’s in it for the audience,” says Halbach. It’s useful to show people that affordable housing will benefit their children, or other people they know in their communities, he says. Telling them that housing will help people take responsibility for their lives doesn’t work as well.

“Also, those who delivered the message had to be seen as important to the audience. We recruited the local leader of Habitat for Humanity to chair the campaign, because that individual and institution were seen as credible, whereas other institutions were not, in terms of delivering that message.”

The next step was to build support for affordable housing among business and faith leaders, and politicians. Housing Minnesota developed materials specifically geared to each of these audiences. In 2003 it co-sponsored a conference on workforce housing with the United Way for employers, to show them how they could be active in meeting their employees’ housing needs. The campaign also developed a full-color brochure that depicted affordable housing as “a bottom-line investment.”

Building support among these leaders laid the groundwork for the campaign’s policy work. In 2005 the campaign won a separate property classification and a 40 percent reduction in taxes for rent-restricted apartments. This year it is working on a parallel approach for shared-equity housing such as community land trusts and some Habitat for Humanity homes. While Governor Tim Pawlenty has not supported all the elements of Housing Minnesota’s platform, he has spoken in support of more funding to fight homelessness and to increase homeownership for people of color. “It just goes to show that you have to be flexible in terms of how the housing issue surfaces in different ways and at different times,” says Halbach.

Language, Language!
The sense that careful use of language is critical to improving the political climate for affordable housing extends even to the names of organizations. Recently the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless changed the name of the state housing trust fund it wants established. It is now called the Housing Investment Fund, since “investment” elicits a more positive response from the public.

A uniquely American combination of values, including the goodness of the free market, choice, fairness and the idea that hard work should bring rewards, is key to understanding the value of messaging. If Barnes, of Homes for Working Families, is right, this work will help make affordable housing more of a priority for the country. The weakness of affordable housing programs has always been that they have been portrayed as a priority for the poorest Americans, encouraging conservatives to stereotype them as a handout. Anti-poverty advocates have often contributed to that perception by focusing on the concerns of the poorest. They are not about to change that focus, nor should they. But their strategic use of language – the way they frame the issue – could help make for a sea change in how affordable housing is perceived, and therefore in housing policy. Even if the conditions on the ground haven’t changed at all.

Housing Minnesota

Housing Illinois

The Campaign for Affordable Housing

Homes for Working Families

National Low Income Housing Coalition surveys of how the public views affordable housing

What We Know About Public Attitudes on Affordable Housing, by The Campaign for Affordable Housing and Belden Russonello & Stewart. May 2004.

Results of the Fannie Mae Foundation Affordable Housing Survey. May/June 2002.