What does the affordable housing industry need to do to make its case in Washington?

Build influence, according to former Illinois Congressman Marty Russo, now a lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

Former U.S. Congressman from Illinois, Marty Russo addresses affordable housing developers at the AHF Live conference in Chicago.
Former U.S. Congressman from Illinois, Marty Russo addresses affordable housing developers at the AHF Live conference in Chicago.

It’s even more effective than power, which can be fleeting and overrated.

“Use your influence in Congress so Congress wants to help you,” he said at AHF Live: The Affordable Housing Developers Summit in Chicago.

Part of the Watergate class of 1974, Russo was among a 75-member wave of Democrats first elected to the House that year. A fast-talking, 30-year-old from Chicago, he didn’t have power over the well-established Southern leaders of the party, but he learned how to influence them.

The affordable housing industry can do the same. Speaking to a room full of developers, Russo offered three straightforward steps to building support for the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) or any other housing program.

The first key is to establish a relationship with your Congress member. “If you invest time getting to know them before you ask them for something, you have a better chance of being successful,” Russo said.

He urged developers to invite lawmakers to tour their LIHTC developments so they can see how the program is working. Meeting representatives in the district is often far more effective than trying to squeeze in an appointment with them in Washington.

The second step is to have facts. “A good relationship may get you in the door, but you have to use the facts to educate the member and staff,” said Russo, who served nine terms in Congress

For example, the LIHTC generates $7.1 billion a year in economic income. Or, the foreclosure rate for LIHTC properties is less than 1%, said Russo, demonstrating that he had studied up on the program.

The third key is to “know your ask.” The single-most important job of a lobbyist or an advocate is to know what to ask for, according to Russo. “Don’t leave a meeting without saying to your member of Congress, ‘I would love your support for X, Y, or Z,’” he said.

These strategies are particularly relevant for the industry as the housing credit will come under scrutiny as part of a tax reform effort.

Russo recalled that the LIHTC program was established largely because Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) was its champion back in 1986. “The housing credit was the most important thing to him,” he said. “It got done because he never backed down.”

In other words, he had influence. And before that, someone influenced Rangel to support the program.

As Rangel prepares to retire and other housing supporters having already left office, Russo’s three-step strategy—build relationships, present facts, and know your ask—is even more relevant.