Unexpected voices: The inside strategy that landed big victories for affordable housing in Oregon



It was late in the day on March 6th when all of a sudden text messages started to quickly pile up on the screen of Neighborhood Partnerships Executive Director Janet Byrd’s iPhone. She scanned the new messages and quickly printed out four pages of budget information. She ran her finger down the list of projects Ways and Means had allocated money for in February’s short Oregon Legislative Session. Then, the corners of her mouth began to turn up. Two days later the staff of Neighborhood Partnerships and several key partners were clinking glasses celebrating one of our most successful sessions to date.

I can’t take credit, having only been on staff for two weeks. But seeing my new organization secure four major legislative victories in a tight session left one question in my mind: how’d they do it?

Picking up the spare

As anyone who does advocacy knows, the legislative session doesn’t start in February. It starts the day after the previous one ends.

Neighborhood Partnerships and the Housing Alliance were just coming off of one of the most successful legislative sessions in their history. But three important goals weren’t met.

Going into 2014, Neighborhood Partnerships and The Housing Alliance knew that they wanted to focus on the things they didn’t get done in the 2013 session. Or, as Janet put it, they needed to pick up the spare.

The Alliance needed to:

– Increase funding for Emergency Housing Account and State Homeless Assistance Program, which is a proven way to get emergency assistance to families before they fall into homelessness.

– Support opportunities for residents to purchase manufactured homes. Manufactured home parks are one of the largest sources of privately owned affordable housing in Oregon. These communities are home to seniors and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, and families who are just starting out.

– Get full funding for foreclosure prevention counseling in support of the resolution conference process set up in SB 558

Oregon Housing Alliance 2014 Agenda 2.5.14

Each piece of the agenda, though all related to affordable housing, would call for very different strategies.

Countless hours would be spent by hundreds of people, Neighborhood Partnerships being only one player in this very complex situation.

Unexpected voices

Support for EHA and SHAP seems like a no-brainer. This is our most flexible resource to end and prevent homelessness. But it has seen several cuts in recent years, while the need is growing at an alarming pace. The Alliance felt legislators would eventually agree. But the message needed refreshing.

Thanks to NP’s strategic communications work, we know that one of the most effective ways to communicate is to take old messages and have them delivered by new, unexpected voices.

Legislators had heard the Alliance and service providers talk about EHA and SHAP many times. Besides, many of them thought that faith communities have been able to meet the excess demand for services left in the recessions wake. Why should this be a priority when money is still so tight?

This is actually a common belief among many people. Faith based providers do amazing work, but based on my experience they’ll be the first ones to tell you that they can’t close the gap between those who need help and the amount of assistance available.

This reality gap meant that faith leaders were the perfect unexpected voices. And luckily, faith leaders were just then beginning to look for a channel for their advocacy voice during the Day of Homelessness Awareness in November. In partnership with the New City Initiative who has been doing a Day of Homelessness Awareness for several years, NP staff helped gather letters of support for EHA/SHAP written by faith leaders and congregational members and delivered them to Salem. Twelve faith leaders also attended meetings with key legislators. The clear message from the faith community – both on that day and in subsequent months – was: we need EHA and SHAP.

Though plenty of action on EHA and SHAP would come later in the February session, and lots of other partners would step up to help tell the story, this early move to garner the vocal support of the faith community set the stage for future efforts.

A common-sense move on foreclosure

February came around quickly after those meetings in November. Many were prepared for little sleep and a lot of negotiating. However, one of the earlier victories in the session was pretty straightforward. The Legislature had previously supported landmark foreclosure counseling reform in 2012 and again in 2013. After a couple months of experience operating under the 2013 statute, that legislation’s impacts had started to become clear.

Our partners, led by Emily Reiman of NEDCO, gathered compelling data about increasing demands on foreclosure counseling agencies and those in need of counseling. Homeowners get one 35-day window to pursue a resolution conference before foreclosure proceeds. This short window coupled with increased demand on agencies for support to homeowners meant that we needed assurance that money would flow at the rate needed to meet demand.

When legislators saw this logistical challenge for their constituents, they acted to ensure a steady stream of funds out into communities. Already, an early victory was won for people who desperately needed new foreclosure solutions – and all we needed were the facts.

Heads on a swivel

While some victories are relatively easy, others are an exercise in negotiation, strategy and patience.

There’s no substitute for great leadership and the recognition that we are all genuinely trying to make Oregon a great place to live. And when it came to the manufactured home parks legislation, those two things came heavily into play. After a stalemate, Representatives Nathanson and Whisnant convened a working group that negotiated a proposal that addressed significant concerns of both residents and park owners – and lead to introduction of a new bill, HB 4038. While residents remained steadfast in wanting notice of potential sale, owners asked for a shorter timeline and more certainty in the process.

Keeping your head on a swivel isn’t just about changing strategy for existing goals. It is also about capitalizing on new opportunities that you didn’t know would present themselves.  

Going into session NP realized that there might be an opportunity to ask for an additional infusion of lottery-backed bonds to support affordable housing units. Across the state, thousands of people with very low incomes live in homes with federal rent subsidies and in manufactured home parks. Many of these homes are at risk of conversion to market rate, including some housing built and owned by non-profit partners statewide. The Alliance seized this opportunity and made the case, focusing on members of the capital construction subcommittee of Ways and Means who oversee those decisions.

Ways and Means conversations are always interesting. It’s not like moving a bill where you see clear progress (or not). You have to make your case to the powers that be and hope it all shakes out.

Lastly, the Alliance was also approached by Catholic Community Services, based in Salem, and asked to support their work to protect non-profit owners of affordable housing from unexpected property tax increases. HB 4039 was introduced with the support of the Housing Alliance and passed, granting assurance to owners for the next few years while a longer-term solution is crafted.

Snowpocalypse

 

Going into the session the Alliance decided it would host two Housing Opportunity Days. These days are great because they give community members direct access to their legislators and they allow legislators to talk to “real people.” This direct community lobbying is a pure display of the Republic form of government and it is inspiring.

However… Mother Nature isn’t always as inspired by the legislative process as I am.

The Thursday of the first Housing Opportunity Day reports of significant snow fall turned into actual snowfall. As the mid-valley began to see the heaviest snow in years, 70 advocates braved the weather and stood up for their right to speak with their elected officials.

The snow actually had a foxhole effect. People who went that day felt a strong bond with each other and their legislators. They had great conversations about EHA/SHAP and foreclosure and manufactured home parks and preservation.

One of those people was Grace Badik from Street Roots who captured her experience that day and throughout the session. Going into the session, Grace never thought of herself as a lobbyist. But she quickly found her voice:  

I lobby because I believe that housing is a basic human right, a basic human need. When did it become OK for people to not have all their basic human needs met? When did it become an accepted part of society for kids to live without a roof over their heads? Housing is very much connected to the success and well-being of a person. It provides stability and security. It has health and economic impacts. We need policy that reflects these realities. We need legislators to be champions for people experiencing homelessness and we need everyone to hold legislators accountable. This is a team effort.

Before the meetings began on my first lobby day, before the running around from the Senate side to the House side, I was preparing myself for the long day ahead. Snow was falling outside, making our numbers small and causing us to rearrange and reschedule. I stood in the hall, outside the Senate chambers, trying to take everything in. My four years of college education, my numerous service and immersion trips, my six months at Street Roots prepared me for this: to be an advocate.

Someone I have come to know over my short time in Portland came up and asked how I was doing. I responded honestly: “I’m nervous. I’ve never really done this before.” She smiled and said, “Grace, all you need to do is speak from the heart. Tell some stories, share your experiences. But you already know that.”

Yes, yes, I did know. Speaking from the heart.

Housing Opportunity Day Number Two 

The Feb 19th Opportunity Day was more focused.  Many more partners’ organizations joined that day to talk about EHA/SHAP needs in their communities – for the final push.

The Alliance continued the strategy of using unexpected voices.

Several providers of domestic violence services talked to legislators about the impact EHA and SHAP had on people fleeing abusive partners and family members, including a fantastic group from Eugene.

Other service providers, like Human Solutions who run the largest family winter shelter in Portland, came and talked about how shelters were full. Families needed rent assistance to stay in their homes, not just because it would prevent homelessness but because the shelters they’d have to turn to were packed to the brim.

We had more great support from folks like Anne Williams from St Vincent DePaul in Eugene.

These voices, in addition to those of faith leaders in November, began to mount an overwhelming case that Oregon communities need EHA and SHAP.

The last push on EHA/SHAP was to circulate of letter of legislative support written by Representative Gorsek. Eventually 19 legislators signed it and for many it was their key priority at the end of the session.

Special letters were also sent to each member of Capital Construction about preservation funding and needs in their districts. In addition to using unexpected messengers there really is no substitute for showing a legislator how funding impacts their constituents. And that’s how it should be.

All that was left to do was wait.

Being good bosses

ThanksLeg2014

In the second Housing Opportunity Day I overheard a staff member from the Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT) explaining the legislative process to a group of CAT advocates. The advocates were mainly born in other countries and had never lobbied their representatives before. In his training, the staff member said something most of us learned in our very first civics class: our elected officials work for us. We’re their bosses.

And like good bosses we need to constantly be providing feedback. We need to present facts and give the lay of the land. We need to inspire, not just inform. We need to act like we’re all on the same team, because in fact we are on the same team.

Because of everybody’s work this session more people will avoid homelessness because of EHA/SHAP funds, more people will have a chance to afford a home and more people will avoid foreclosure.

Thanks to legislators, community members, Oregon Housing Alliance members, service providers, advocates, concerned citizens, and faith leaders or as we just call them all – neighbors. These victories belong to every single Oregonian.

But wait, there’s more…

The Monday after we all celebrated Janet came into the office. Her face was a bit white and her usually stoic demeanor was a bit off kilter.

She just had a discussion with a community partner who reminded her the lesson we had forgotten ever so briefly – next legislative session has already started.

Up for renewal is the Oregon IDA Initiative tax credit, which helps people learn more about financial health, save faster through a matched savings account and dream bigger dreams that transform communities. We need to put a legislative package together for broad, systemic affordable housing reforms and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

All this takes a ton of work. If you value the work Neighborhood Partnerships and the Housing Alliance does we are hoping you’d help us start the 2015 legislative season off to a great start by donating today.

Your donation will go directly to our advocacy efforts that build opportunity for Oregonians with low incomes.

The choice is completely yours. We appreciate any support you can provide

Thanks again!