Cost of Home Campaign: Welcoming Families Home Through Public Policy

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On June 12, 2019, Habitat for Humanity launched its ambitious nationwide Cost of Home campaign to engage its local affiliates and many others in advocacy efforts to secure affordable housing for 10 million individuals over the next five years. The motivation for the campaign is simple: “families all across the United States are paying too high a price to cover the cost of home.” 

Emily Perkins, Intern, National Council of NonprofitsIn order to make systemic reforms and policy advances, the campaign is targeting four key areas of change: supply and preservation of homes; access to credit; land use; and communities of opportunity. The primary strategies are to get legislation passed in line with Habitat’s public policy agenda and to build its network’s advocacy capacity.

So far, the campaign has had multiple successes across the country and there’s much to learn about effective advocacy by taking a closer look. Here, for each of the four priorities, we’ll consider the underlying problems, identify relevant solutions, and review how advocates are getting them implemented.

Priority #1: Improving the Housing Supply

Across the country, low-to-moderate income families do not have access to affordable housing. Housing experts believe that homeowners and renters should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Yet today, nearly 19 million people in America pay half or more of what they earn to pay for housing. The Cost of Home campaign starts with the view that there simply are not enough homes available to meet the demands of individuals and families seeking lower-cost homes. Therefore, “Increasing the supply and preservation of affordable homes” is one of the top priorities for Habitat’s campaign, which promotes local, state and federal policies that fund and expand new affordable housing projects, as well as increases access to available homes. They will also be advocating for ways to create funding sources to preserve and repair older homes to make them safe, respectable, and cost-effective.

The Minneapolis, Twin Cities Habitat successfully advocated for a substantial increase in funding for constructing affordable housing in the city. Twin Cities Habitat, in coalition with other housing groups, was able to secure $21.1 million for the Minneapolis Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF). The Fund provides gap funding for affordable and mixed-income rental housing, housing production, and preservation efforts for the city. The Mayor of Minneapolis increased the housing budget by $20.3 million, with $21.1 million allocated to the AHTF, funds that will be used to support the production of 500 to 800 homes in the city.

Priority #2: Providing Access to Credit

Having access to reliable and secure credit is a fundamental necessity for low-income families, especially given the long-term financial benefits of acquiring assets such as a home. For years, credit has been something reserved for wealthier individuals, while low-income households were often pigeonholed into predatory lending, or simply didn’t have access to credit at all. The crux of the problem lies in the outdated credit scoring system that favors some households over others. The Cost of Home campaign looks to rework the credit system so that it increases equity in credit scoring and lending practices while improving federal and state housing finance systems to expand access to reliable, private capital investment for a broad range of communities. A revamp of the credit system needs to include opportunities to expand housing counselling, financial education programs, and down-payment assistance programs.

Habitat affiliates in Indiana stood their ground when facing a statewide proposal that would increase predatory short-term lending practices and payday loans. The bill would have targeted many lower income households who don’t have access to traditional credit systems and charged them higher rates. Partnering with other nonprofits, community-development groups and veterans, Habitat rallied supporters and members of the Legislature. As a result, the legislation died when the sponsor of the bill never called it up for a vote. This example, of course, reinforces the need for nonprofits to be willing to engage in defensive advocacy to prevent greater challenges that would frustrate positive gains in other priorities.

Priority #3: Cutting Red Tape

Habitat has found that zoning restrictions, rising land prices, and development costs stand in the way of constructing affordable housing all across the country. Some cities reserve land for single-family homes while others have subjective approval processes and restrictive zoning limits. Time is money, and the more time it takes to get approval, the more the house is going to cost – leaving lower income families at an even greater disadvantage. A priority of the Cost of Home campaign is streamlining land approvals and ending exclusionary zoning practices to help reduce the time, risk, and expenditures of building a home. Creating incentives or requirements for affordable housing and deliberate reforms to optimize land use and development can also give opportunities to families that were never given a chance to buy a home.

This month, Oregon enacted a measure to rezone land reserved for single-family housing units into other options such as duplexes, quadplexes, and cottage clusters. These types of housing options are hard to find across the country because of years of laws preserving racial and class discrimination, thus excluding lower income families from the opportunity to buy a home. But due to the efforts of the Portland Habitat and others, the bill was passed on the last day of the legislative session, proving their team’s dedication to getting it done.

Priority #4: Creating Communities of Opportunity

When choosing an affordable home, should families have to sacrifice access to grocery stores, quality schools or transportation, or face the risks from rising housing prices as new investment comes to the community. The Cost of Home campaign recognizes that giving families the resources to grow and develop in their communities starts with supporting policies that promote stability for low-income homeowners even as new investments and opportunities arise. Further, it is well documented that the longstanding class separation in neighborhoods stems from historical social inequality, but can be remedied by adopting policies that address systematic discrimination and encourage racial and income equity in communities. Giving families a meaningful voice in the development and advancement of the community can thus help shape policies that are truly beneficial to the needs of its residents.

In Virginia, Habitat Greater Charlottesville is helping its residents take ownership of the revitalization project in the Southwood mobile home park. The goal is to create a financially sustainable, mixed-income community. Habitat is helping the Southwood residents understand the county’s zoning codes so they can devise a redevelopment plan that suits their needs and strengthens their community. “It is about elevating residents to take the same kind of ownership stake in the neighborhood that they do in their homes,” says Dan Rosensweig, Habitat Greater Charlottesville President and CEO. Giving the community the tools it needs to succeed will help create a stronger, healthier, and sustainable community that will last for years to come.

Habitat for Humanity aims to “find solutions and help create policies that will allow 10 million individuals to have access to affordable homes.” Success stories will continue to build and families will be finally welcomed home.

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